Jul 202017

Today is International Chess Day, as proposed by UNESCO because the International Chess Federation (FIDE) was founded on this date in 1924. It has been celebrated on this date since 1966. FIDE, which has 181 chess federations as its members, organizes chess events and competitions around the world on this day. A 2012 Yougov poll showed that “a surprisingly stable 70% of the adult population has played chess at some point during their lives.” The claim is that “the adult population” includes people “in countries as diverse as the US, UK, Germany, Russia, India.” I wouldn’t exactly call these countries “diverse” (with the possible exception of India) but I get the point. If the statistic holds true for my readership I don’t need to spend much time talking about how the modern game of chess works – not that I want to do that, anyway. Instead I’ll talk about some peripheral matters such as the historical antecedents to the game, its near and distant relatives, and some novel chess pieces.

Chess as we know it is generally believed to have evolved in Eastern India, c. 280–550, in the Gupta Empire, where an early form (in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga) (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally “four [military] divisions”  – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. From India the game spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. The earliest physical evidence of a chess-like game (that is, actual game pieces) is found in the nearby Sassanid Persia around 600, where the game came to be known by the name chatrang.

Chatrang was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–44), where it was then named shatranj, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names. In Spanish “shatranj” was rendered as ajedrez (“al-shatranj”), in Portuguese as xadrez, and in Greek as ζατρίκιον (zatrikion, which comes directly from the Persian chatrang), but in the rest of Europe it was replaced by versions of the Persian shāh (“king”), which evolved into the English words “check” and “chess.” The phrase shāh mat (“the king is dead”) became “checkmate.”

The oldest archaeological artifacts, believed to be actual chess pieces, were excavated in ancient Afrasiab (modern Samarkand), in Uzbekistan, and date to about 760, or possibly older. The oldest known chess manual was in Arabic and dates to 840–850, written by al-Adli ar-Rumi (800–870), a renowned Arab chess player, titled Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess). The original manuscript is lost, but it is referenced in later works. The eastern migration of chess, into China and Southeast Asia, has even less documentation than its migration west. The first reference to chess, called Xiang Qi, in China comes in the xuán guaì lù (玄怪录, “record of the mysterious and strange”) dating to about 800. A few scholars contend that modern chess evolved from Xiang Qi (Chinese chess) or one of its predecessors, but this is not the majority opinion.

Chess reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000, it had spread throughout Europe. Chess was Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century and is described in a famous 13th-century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon, and dice  entitled el libro de los juegos (the book of games).

Around 1200, the rules of shatranj started to be modified in southern Europe, and around 1475, several major changes made the game essentially as it is known today. These modern rules for the basic moves had been adopted in Italy and Spain. Pawns gained the option of advancing two squares on their first move, while bishops and queens acquired their modern abilities. The queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece towards the end of the 10th century and by the 15th century had become the most powerful piece; consequently modern chess was referred to as “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess.” Castling was also introduced, derived from the “kings leap” usually in combination with a pawn or rook move to bring the king to safety. These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe. The rules concerning stalemate (a draw when the king cannot move safely) were finalized in the early 19th century. Also in the 19th century, the convention that White moves first was established (formerly either White or Black could move first depending on chance). Finally, the rules concerning castling were standardized – variations in the castling rules had persisted in Italy until the late 19th century. The resulting standard game is sometimes referred to as Western chess or international chess, particularly in Asia where other games of the chess family such as xiangqi are still prevalent. Since the 19th century, the only rule changes have been technical in nature, for example establishing the correct procedure for claiming a draw by repetition.

The increased interest in the game of chess, particularly in international play during the late 18th century and early 19th century, brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model for chess pieces. The variety and styles of the conventional form, begun in the 15th century, had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the 19th century. Conventional types popular during the period included the English Barleycorn chess set, the St. George chess set, the French Regence chess set (named after the Café de la Régence in Paris) and the central European. Most pieces were tall, easily tipped and cumbersome during play, but their major disadvantage was the similarity of the pieces within a set. A player’s unfamiliarity with an opponent’s set could alter the outcome of a game.

By the early decades of the 19th century, it was all too clear that there was a great need for a chess set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by chess players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by the purveyors of fine games, John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers, of Hatton Garden, London England, was to become known as the Staunton chess set after Howard Staunton (1810–1874), the chess player and writer who was generally considered the strongest player in the world from 1843 to 1851. Although Nathaniel Cook has long been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law and owner of the firm, John Jaques.

A few variants of classic chess pop up now and again although they don’t have a lot of popularity.  Three-dimensional chess has a certain following, notably among fans of the original Star Trek series where a fake version of the actual game was featured once in a while.

There’s also four-handed chess which I’ve played a few times in college in my first year because one of my friends was a rabid fan of all manner of games and had groups of us up all night indulging his passion.  Whatever we played he always won.  Four-handed chess is essentially all against all, but you can form temporary alliances. When one player’s king is placed in checkmate, that player’s pieces are frozen, but they can be freed by another player capturing or moving one of the pieces creating the checkmate.

Xiangqi ( 象棋), known as “Chinese chess” in the West, is very popular in parts of China and the Chinese diaspora.  When I lived in Hong Kong I constantly passed games in the street surrounded by crowds of men constantly and loudly voicing their opinions of moves to each other and to the players. The game represents a battle between two armies, with the object of capturing the enemy’s general (king). Distinctive features of xiangqi include the cannon (pao), which must jump to capture; a rule prohibiting the generals from facing each other directly; areas on the board called the river and palace, which restrict the movement of some pieces (but enhance that of others); and placement of the pieces on the intersections of the board lines, rather than within the squares.

Chess pie is a pretty obvious choice for my recipe du jour even though there’s nothing to connect the game to the recipe other than the name. No one has a clear idea as to why the pie is called “chess” pie although there are plenty of ridiculous speculations. Southern gentry used to eat it before (or after) playing chess on their plantations, for example. The basic chess pie is very simple to make and is too sweet for my tastes. Common varieties include lemon chess pie and chocolate chess pie.  Here’s the basics:

Chess Pie


½ cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp cornmeal
¼ cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
9” unbaked pie shell


Preheat your oven to 425˚F/220˚C).

In a large bowl (or stand mixer), cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Mix in the eggs, then beat in the cornmeal, evaporated milk and vinegar until smooth.

Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Then reduce the heat to 300˚F/150˚C) and bake for another 40 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack.

Serve slices cold with whipped cream.

Jul 192017

Today is Martyrs’ Day (အာဇာနည်နေ့, pronounced [àzànì nḛ]) in Myanmar, a national holiday observed to commemorate Gen. Aung San and seven other leaders of the pre-independence interim government, and one bodyguard who were assassinated on 19th July, 1947. It is customary for high-ranking government officials to visit the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Yangon in the morning of that day to pay respects.

On 19 July 1947, at approximately 10:37 a.m., BST, several of Burma’s independence leaders were gunned down by a group of armed men in uniform while they were holding a cabinet meeting at the Secretariat in downtown Yangon. The assassinations were planned by a rival political group, and the leader and alleged mastermind of that group Galon U Saw, together with the perpetrators, were tried and convicted by a special tribunal presided by Kyaw Myint with two other Barristers-at-law, Aung Thar Gyaw and Si Bu. In a judgment given on 30 December 1947 the tribunal sentenced U Saw and a few others to death and the rest were given prison sentences.

Appeals to the High Court of Burma by U Saw and his accomplices were rejected on 8 March 1948. In a judgment written by Supreme Court Justice E Maung (1898–1977) on 27 April 1948, the Supreme Court refused leave to appeal against the original judgment.

Then-President of Burma Sao Shwe Thaik refused to pardon or commute the sentences of most of those who were sentenced to death, and U Saw was hanged inside Rangoon’s Insein jail on 8 May 1948. A number of perpetrators met the same fate, while minor players, who were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, also spent several years in prison.

The assassinated were:

Aung San, Prime Minister

Ba Cho, Minister of Information

Mahn Ba Khaing, Minister of Industry and Labor

Ba Win, Minister of Trade

Thakin Mya, Minister Without Portfolio, unofficially considered as Deputy Prime Minister of Burma

Abdul Razak, Minister of Education and National Planning

Sao San Tun, Minister of Hills Regions

Ohn Maung, Secretary of State Transport

Ko Htwe, Razak’s bodyguard

Tin Tut, Minister of Finance, and Kyaw Nyein, Minister of Home affairs, were not present at the meeting. Additionally, one of the assassins, Ba Nyunt, came to the office of Chamber of Deputies Speaker U Nu, who was not present because of a leave of absence due to minor illness.So Ba Nyunt could not find U Nu to kill. Later Ba Nyunt became the government witness in the trial process.

Many Burmese believe that the British were somehow involved in the assassination plot; two British officers were also arrested at the time and one of them charged and convicted for supplying an agent of U Saw with arms and munitions. A large part of the stockpile, which was enough to equip a small army, was recovered from a lake next to U Saw’s house in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Soon after the assassinations, Major General Sir Hubert Rance, the last British Governor of Burma, appointed U Nu to head an interim administration and when Burma became independent on 4 January 1948, Nu became the first Prime Minister of Burma and he declared 19 July a public holiday.

I suppose I can be accused of being a tad too picky when it comes to giving you “authentic” recipes from around the world. I plead guilty. The simple fact is that when you’ve eaten asado in Argentina, fried noodles in China, or sashimi in Japan (or even something specific such as tripes à la mode de Caen in Caen), you get a bit defensive about recipes, not least because key ingredients are often available in local markets only.  Here’s a couple of views of Myanmar cuisine I have tasted recently in Mandalay, one in a restaurant and one home cooked.  Care to have a go? There are two fairly basic rules. First is that rice is the basis of the meal, whether it is plain boiled or fried with various ingredients such as fermented tea leaves or Chinese beans. Second, there are numerous dishes to add to the rice – all relatively small and all placed in communal dishes in the center of the table. The idea of a main dish is anathema.

Myanmar sits at the crossroads of several well-known cuisines – Indian, Thai, and Chinese – and is also home to a number of ethnic groups. A regular meal in a Myanmar household may consist of dishes from several of these cuisines although they all seem to have a hint that is uniquely Burmese. Hard to explain. The Burmese especially like sour pickled things and reasonably spicy/hot things (not desperately hot). Many of the pickles are fermented by rural women who come to markets periodically to sell them. They are typically wild greens that grow in the countryside and in streams. Finding an adequate translation into English of what I am eating is usually next to impossible (and you’re not going to find anything like them at the A & P). My host called one of the pickled greens I liked, “aquatic Morning Glory.” See if you can get hold of that !!

Breakfast where I live is always soup, rice, and some side dishes. One soup I like is labeled “fish bones with vermicelli.” This recipe will produce a vague simulacrum. Honestly – save your pennies and get on the road to Mandalay if you want the real deal. When this is served it’s normally accompanied with a variety of toppings to add: chopped coriander, chopped boiled egg, chopped green onion, and hot pickles. To my taste it’s a bit bland on its own, although the fish stock can be quite complex. The toppings complete the dish for me.

Tohu Byawk


1½ cups chickpea flour
8 cups fish stock
½ lb cooked rice vermicelli


Put the chickpea flour and salt to taste in a medium bowl and add 2 cups of cold broth. Whisk well to make a smooth paste without lumps.

Bring the remaining 6 cups of broth to a boil in a large heavy pot. Turn the head down to a simmer.

Whisk a ladleful of hot broth into the chickpea mixture vigorously to temper and thin it, then pour it into the simmering broth in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

Lower the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring to ensure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pot.

When all the chickpea mix is incorporated thoroughly, simmer for about 5 minutes until the soup has thickened and has a slight sheen. Reduce the heat to low and continue stirring for another couple of minutes.

Add the rice vermicelli and heat through.

Serve with toppings of your choice – certainly fresh coriander, green onions, and boiled egg.

Jul 182017

On this date in 1555, Mary I granted the College of Arms a new house called Derby Place or Derby House and a new charter. The College is still more or less in the same place under much the same charter, although the College’s fortunes have come and gone over the years. The College of Arms, also known as the College of Heralds, is a royal corporation consisting of professional officers of arms, with jurisdiction over England, Wales, Northern Ireland and some Commonwealth countries. The heralds are appointed by the British Sovereign and are delegated authority to act on behalf of the Crown in all matters of heraldry, the granting of new coats of arms, genealogical research, and the recording of pedigrees. The College is also the official body responsible for matters relating to the flying of flags on land, and it maintains the official registers of flags and other national symbols. Though a part of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom, the College is self-financed, unsupported by any public funds. I have to say that I despise the hereditary monarchy, hereditary privilege and all their trappings, including heraldic design, flag duties and all the rest of it. But there was a time in my boyhood when heraldry held my interest, along with ancient calligraphy, historical naval uniforms, and a host of other more or less useless things that now clutter up the dusty attic of my brain.  So, I’ll give the College of Arms its day in the sun.

At one time the College of Arms was an extremely important body, because it was responsible for the validation of hereditary rights to titles and property, including the right to be king or queen of England. For Mary I this function of the College was of supreme importance, not only because she had been declared illegitimate by her father, Henry VIII, when he invalidated his marriage to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, but also because certain factions in England were intent on putting Lady Jane Grey on the throne instead of her, and heralds of the College of Arms had dutifully certified that Jane was the legitimate heir to the throne and not Mary. Mary had an army, most of the citizens of London, and other powerful factions on her side, and, so, won the day without too much trouble – beheading Jane and her supporters into the bargain for their troubles. The officers of the College were also, of course, in a certain amount of hot water for backing Jane instead of Mary, but they pleaded that they had been forced to act under threat of death, so Mary, in an uncharacteristic act of mercy, pardoned them, and gave them a new house and a new charter, no doubt assuming they would be on better behavior thereafter. The thing is that in the turbulent times of the Wars of the Roses (when the crown changed hands multiple times), followed by the reigns of the Tudors and then the Stuarts, the succession to the throne was constantly in doubt, and the support of the College of Arms was vital on many occasions.

The College of Arms was originally founded by royal charter in 1484 by King Richard III, the first year of his reign.  The College had several functions related to heraldry and genealogical claims. Richard’s royal charter outlines the constitution of the College’s officers, their hierarchy, the privileges conferred upon them and their jurisdiction over all heraldic matters in the kingdom of England. The College was also granted a house named Coldharbour (formerly Poulteney’s Inn) on Upper Thames Street in the parish of All-Hallows-the-Less, for storing records and living space for the heralds. The house, built by Sir John de Pulteney, four times Lord Mayor of London, was said to be one of the greatest in the City of London, testifying to the College’s importance as supporters of Richard’s claim to the throne and of his grants of titles to his allies.

Unfortunately for the College, Richard was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor who was crowned Henry VII soon after the battle, inaugurating the troubled house of Tudor. Henry’s first Parliament of 1485 passed an Act of Resumption, in which large grants of crown properties made by Richard to his allies were cancelled, and Coldharbour was taken from the College and given to Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, for life. As a result, the heralds were left destitute and many of their books and records were lost. Nonetheless, the heralds’ position at the royal court remained, and they were compelled by Henry to attend him at all times (in rotation).

During the reign of Henry’s son, Henry VIII, the heralds were of supreme importance in a number of areas. Henry VIII was fond of pomp and magnificence, and thus gave the heralds plenty of opportunity to exercise their roles in his court. In addition, the members of the College were also expected to be regularly dispatched to foreign courts on missions, whether to declare war, accompany armies, summon garrisons or deliver messages to foreign potentates and generals. During his magnificent meeting with Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, Henry VIII brought with him 18 officers of arms, probably all he had, to regulate the many tournaments and ceremonies held there.

Nevertheless, the College’s petitions to the King and to the Duke of Suffolk in 1524 and 1533 for the return of their chapter house were rejected, and the heralds were left to hold chapter in whichever palace the royal court happened to be at the time. They even resorted to meeting at each other’s houses, at various guildhalls and even a hospital. It was also in this reign in 1530, that Henry VIII conferred on the College one of its most important duties for almost a century, the heraldic visitation. The provincial Kings of Arms were commissioned under a royal warrant to enter all houses and churches and given authority to deface and destroy all arms unlawfully used by any knight, esquire, or gentleman. Around the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries this duty became even more necessary as the monasteries were previously repositories of local genealogical records. From then on, all genealogical records and the duty of recording them was subsumed by the College. These visitations were serious affairs, and many individuals were charged and heavily fined for breaking the law of arms. Hundreds of these visitations were carried out well into the 17th century; the last was in 1686.

And so we get to Mary I. Although it must have been embarrassing for both sides, after the heralds initially proclaimed the right of her rival Lady Jane Grey to the throne. When King Edward VI died on 6 July 1553, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen four days later, first in Cheapside then in Fleet Street by two heralds, trumpets blowing before them. However, when popular support swung to Mary’s side, the Lord Mayor of London and his councils accompanied by the Garter King of Arms, two other heralds, and four trumpeters returned to Cheapside to proclaim Mary’s ascension as rightful queen instead. The College’s excuse was that they were compelled in their earlier act by the Duke of Northumberland (Lady Jane’s father-in-law, who was later executed), an excuse that Mary accepted.

Mary and her husband (and co-sovereign) Philip II of Spain then set about granting the College a new house called Derby Place or Derby House, under a new charter, dated 18 July 1555 at Hampton Court Palace. The charter stated that the house would: “enable them [the College] to assemble together, and consult, and agree amongst themselves, for the good of their faculty, and that the records and rolls might be more safely and conveniently deposited.” The charter also reincorporated the three kings of arms, six heralds and all other heralds and pursuivants, and their successors, into a corporation with perpetual succession.

Derby Place was situated in the parish of St Benedict and St Peter, south of St Paul’s Cathedral, more or less on the College’s present location. There are records of the heralds carrying out modifications to the structure of Derby Place over many years. However, little record of its appearance has survived, except the description that the buildings formed three sides of a quadrangle, entered through a gate with a portcullis on the west side. On the south range, roughly where Queen Victoria Street now stands, was a large hall on the western end. Derby Place’s hearth tax bill from 1663, discovered in 2009 at the National Archives at Kew, showed that the building had about thirty-two rooms, which were the workplace as well as the home to eleven officers of arms.

The College had its work cut out for it under the Tudors and Stuarts. Of the ruling monarchs, Mary I, Elizabeth I, Charles II, William III and Mary II, and Anne all died without direct heirs, and throughout Tudor and Stuart times, not to mention the Civil Wars, hereditary titles and property were in a constant state of flux. Under the Hanoverian Georges down to the present day, things in those quarters have been much more orderly and the College has gradually subsided into a largely ceremonial role (with ups and downs from time to time). Unless you are in danger of inheriting a castle from a distant relative, or you are intrigued by the archaic language and honors associated with coats of arms, this post will be about the sum total of your interest in, and knowledge of, the College of Arms.

Here’s 2 Tudor recipes for salmon.  It’s not rocket science to translate them into usable recipes for the modern kitchen:

Salmon Sallet for fish days From Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewell (1585, 1594, and 1596)

‘Salmon cut long waies with slices of onyons upon it layd and upon that to cast Violets, Oyle and Vineger’.

Here my main question is how the salmon is prepared first. I assume this is not a Tudor version of sashimi and that the salmon is cooked and then chilled before serving. I’d grill it with sliced onions, cool, then lay on violets, and sprinkle over oil and vinegar.

Salmon Rostyd in sauce  From Gentyll Manly Cokere, MS Pepys 1047 (c1490)

‘Samon rostyd in sause. Cut thy salmon in round pieces and roast it on a grid iron. Take wine and powder of cinnamon and draw them through a strainer. Add thereto onions minced small. Boil it well. Take vinegar or verjuice and powder of ginger and salt. Add thereto. Lay the salmon in dishes and pour the syrup thereon and serve forth’.


Jul 172017

Today is International Firgun Day. The term “firgun” (Hebrew: פירגון) is an informal modern Hebrew term and concept in Israeli culture, which describes genuine, unselfish delight or pride in the accomplishment of the other. It can also be used to mean a generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person. The concept does not have a one-word equivalent in English, probably for good reason: that is, the idea is rather alien in the English-speaking world. The infinitive form of the word, “Lefargen”, means to make someone feel good without any ulterior motives. This absence of negativity is an integral part of the concept of firgun.

The word can be traced back to the Yiddish word “farginen” (a cognate of the German word “vergönnen. The word was initially used in the 1970s in Hebrew, and gained momentum in subsequent decades. The thing about firgun is that it’s not just about giving compliments, the feelings expressed must be authentic and without agenda. Scholars suggest that the concept of firgun can be found in Talmudic Hebrew as “ayin tova” — “a good eye” – a phrase not commonly used in modern Hebrew.

In 2014, Made in JLM (Jerusalem), an Israeli non-profit community group, set out to create “International Firgun Day”, a holiday celebrated yearly on July 17, where people share compliments or express genuine pride in the accomplishment of others on social media.

Here’s what they say on their website:

יום הפרגון הבינלאומי נחגג גם השנה, זה הפעם הרביעית, ב-17 ביולי ואתם מוזמנים להצטרף מכל מקום בעולם ולחלוק את ערך הפרגון. מה עושים? בוחרים אדם/עסק/ארגון שמגיע לו #פרגון, מוסיפים את התמונה שלו ולמה הוא נבחר, ומתייגים 3 אנשים נוספים שמתבקשים לפרגן את זה הלאה. אנו תלויים בכם- אנא הזמינו חברים, שתפו ופרגנו! אין לכם רעיונות לפרגון? כנסו לפירגונטור, מחולל הפרגונים האוטומטי: www.firgunator.com

My modern Hebrew is not stellar, but this is the gist:

International Firgun Day is celebrated this year, for the fourth time, on July 17th, and you are invited to join from anywhere in the world and share the value of your empathy. What do you do? Choose a person / business / organization that deserves a #firgun, add its image and why you selected it, and tag 3 additional people and ask them to forward it. We depend on you – please invite friends, share and distribute! Don’t have any ideas for good wishes? Go to the Firgunator, the automatic firgun generator: www.firgunator.com

So . . . International Firgun Day is a virtual event. Get on it everyone !!! Send a kind word to or about someone for no other reason than that you feel it.

As it happens, there’s a certain amount of firgun in my cooking. I cook because I enjoy making people happy, not because I want compliments. I write this blog to spread happiness. Ulterior motives ruin everything.

I entered “cock-a-leekie” (one of my favorite dishes) into the Firgunator and got:

Cock-a-leekie, I would have definitely protected the earth from the aliens with you. Your words are so sophisticated, I have no idea what you are saying.

Jul 162017

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, the first Franciscan mission in the Californias (province of New Spain), was founded on this date in 1769 by Spanish friar Junípero Serra in an area long inhabited by the Kumeyaay people. The mission, of course, eventually developed into the city of San Diego. The original Spanish settlement at the Kumeyaay’s Nipawai was within the general area occupied during the late Paleoindian period and continuing on into the present day by the Indian group known as the Diegueño to the Spanish, a name denoting that the people  were served by the padres at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In comparison with other Californian Indians a fair amount is known about the Kumeyaay prior to the establishment of the mission thanks in large part to the records of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who documented his observations of life in the coastal villages he encountered along the Southern California coast in October 1542. Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, is credited with the Spanish discovery of San Diego Bay. On the evening of September 28, 1542 the ships San Salvador and Victoria sailed into the harbor, whereupon Cabrillo christened it “San Miguel.” During that expedition a landing party went ashore and briefly interacted with a small group of local people.

About 60 years later another Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, made landfall around 10 miles from the present Mission site. Under Vizcaíno’s command the San Diego, Santo Tomás, and frigate Tres Reyes dropped anchor on November 10, 1602, and the port was renamed San Diego de Alcalá. It was another 167 years before the Spanish returned to San Diego. The kingdom of Spain had been moderately interested in adding to its colonies in Mexico, however, it was not until 1741—the time of the Vitus Bering expedition, when the territorial ambitions of tsarist Russia towards North America became known—that King Philip V of Spain felt that Spanish colonies were necessary in Upper California, and so Franciscans (and troops) gradually migrated north, eventually colonizing the West to the Rockies. This ought to be a powerful reminder to “patriotic” denizens of the United States in the modern era, that until the treaty of Gudalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which concluded the Mexican-American War, (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/treaty-of-guadalupe-hidalgo/ ), the whole western third of the current continental United States was owned by Mexico, and that English-speaking peoples there are the immigrants (of course, from an Indian perspective, so are the Spanish-speaking peoples).

In May 1769, Gaspar de Portolà had established the Fort Presidio of San Diego on a hill near the San Diego River. This was actually the first settlement by Europeans in what is now the state of California. Then in July Mission San Diego de Alcalá was founded by Franciscan friars under Junípero Serra. By 1797, the mission had the largest Indian population in Alta California, with over 1,400 neophytes living in and around the mission proper. Mission San Diego was the southern anchor in California of the historic mission trail El Camino Real.

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and San Diego became part of the Mexican territory of Alta California. In 1822, Mexico began attempting to extend its authority over the coastal territory of Alta California. The fort on Presidio Hill was gradually abandoned, while the town of San Diego grew up on the level land below Presidio Hill. The Mission was secularized by the Mexican government in 1833, and most of the Mission lands were sold to wealthy Californio settlers. The 432 residents of the town petitioned the governor to form a pueblo, and Juan María Osuna was elected the first alcalde, defeating Pío Pico in the vote. However, San Diego had been losing population throughout the 1830s and in 1838 the town lost its pueblo status because its size dropped to an estimated 100 to 150 residents. It was not until after 1848, when Alta California became part of the United States that San Diego started growing again.

Carne asada fries seems like a fitting dish for today. It was invented in the 1990s by Lolita’s Mexican Food in San Diego, inspired by a suggestion from their tortilla distributor. It’s a suitably bastardized Mexican-American dish that is popular in and around the San Diego region. It can be made in a number of ways, but the basics are fries on the bottom topped with chopped carne asada, guacamole, and shredded cheese with other ingredients added as the cook desires.

You don’t need a strict recipe. Use about 1½ pounds of carne asada to 2 pounds of freshly cooked French fries. Chop the meat coarsely and spread over the French fries. Cover with grated cotija cheese (or other good melting cheese), and place under a grill to melt. Garnish with sour cream, guacamole, and whatever else you want – such as chopped tomatoes and pico de gallo.

Jul 152017

Today is Saint Swithun’s Day which for many Brits conjures up the rhyme:

If on St Swithun’s Day it rains
For forty days it will remain.

I’ve known the rhyme since I was a boy, but I’ve never especially remembered that today is the day.

Swithun (Old English: Swīþhūn) was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester and subsequently patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. The precise meaning and origin of Swithun’s name is unknown, but it most likely derives from the Old English word swiþ, ‘strong.’ Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from his consecration in October 853 until his death on 2nd July some time between 862 and 865. Why his feast day is today and not the 2nd is not clear to me. Swithun is scarcely mentioned in any document of his own time. His death is entered in the Canterbury manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS F) under the year 861. His signature is appended to the witness lists of several Anglo-Saxon charters. Of these charters three belong to 833, 838, and 860–862. In the first, Swithun signs as Swithunus presbyter regis Egberti, in the second as Swithunus diaconus, and in the third as Swithunus episcopus.

More than 100 years later, when Dunstan and Æthelwold of Winchester were inaugurating their church reform, Swithun was adopted as patron of the restored church at Winchester, formerly dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. His body was transferred from its almost forgotten grave to Æthelwold’s new basilica on 15 July 971, and according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles preceded and followed the move.

The revival of Swithun’s fame gave rise to a mass of legendary literature. The Vita S. Swithuni of Lantfred and Wulfstan, written about 1000, hardly contains any biographical facts. All that has in later years passed for authentic detail of Swithun’s life is extracted from a biography ascribed to Goscelin of St Bertin’s, a monk who came over to England with Hermann, bishop of Salisbury from 1058 to 1078. From Goscelin we learn that Saint Swithun was born in the reign of Egbert of Wessex, and was ordained priest by Helmstan, bishop of Winchester (838-c. 852). His fame reached the king’s ears, and he appointed him tutor of his son, Æthelwulf (aka Adulphus), and considered him one of his chief friends.

Under Æthelwulf, Swithun was appointed bishop of Winchester where he was consecrated by Archbishop Ceolnoth. In his new office he was known for his piety and his zeal in building new churches or restoring old ones. At his request Æthelwulf gave the tenth of his royal lands to the Church. Swithun made his diocesan journeys on foot; when he gave a banquet he invited the poor and not the rich. William of Malmesbury adds that, if Bishop Ealhstan of Sherborne was Æthelwulf’s minister for temporal matters, Swithun was the minister for spiritual matters.

There is a not entirely implausible legend that Swithun accompanied Alfred on his visit to Rome in 856. He died on 2 July 862. On his deathbed Swithin begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where passers-by should pass over his grave and raindrops from the eaves drop upon it.

Swithun’s remains were moved from this outdoor grave to an indoor shrine in the Old Minster at Winchester in 971. His body was probably later split between a number of smaller shrines. His head was certainly detached and, in the Middle Ages, taken to Canterbury Cathedral. Peterborough Abbey had an arm. His main shrine was transferred into the new Norman cathedral at Winchester in 1093. He was installed on what was called a ‘feretory platform’ above and behind the high altar. A feretory is a portable shrine for relics. The retrochoir was built in the early 13th century to accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims wishing to visit his shrine and enter the ‘holy hole’ beneath Swithun’s relics. His empty tomb in the ruins of the Old Minster was also popular with visitors. The shrine was only moved into the retrochoir itself in 1476. It was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation. A modern representation of it now stands on the site.

The shrine of Swithun at Winchester was supposedly a site of numerous miracles in the Middle Ages. Æthelwold of Winchester ordered that all monks were to stop whatever they were doing and head to the church to praise God every time that a miracle happened. A folk tale says that the monks at some point got so fed up with this, sometimes having to wake up and go to the church three or four times each night, that they decided to stop going. St Swithun then appeared in a dream to someone (possibly two people) and warned them that if they stopped going to the church, then miracles would cease. This person (or persons) then warned the monks about the dream they had, and the monks then caved in and decided to go to the church each time a miracle happened again.

Swithun is regarded as one of the saints to whom one should pray in the event of drought.

Many churches dedicated to St Swithun can be found throughout the south of England, especially in Hampshire. There is, for example, St Swithun’s, Headbourne Worthy, to the north of Winchester. This church is surrounded on three sides by a brook that flows from a spring in the village; the lych gate on the south side is also a bridge over the brook, which is unusual. Other churches dedicated to St Swithun can be found at Walcot, Lincoln, Worcester and western Norway, where Stavanger Cathedral is dedicated to him. He is also commemorated at St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London (site of the former church of St Swithin, London Stone), St Swithun’s School for girls in Winchester and St Swithun’s quadrangle in Magdalen College, Oxford.

You won’t find much in the way of traditional cooking in Hampshire in general let alone Winchester in particular. There is a cheese called Old Winchester (also known as Old Smales) which is quite popular these days. It is a mature, hard cheese, somewhat like Gouda with a characteristic nutty flavor that grates well. It can also be used as a regular table cheese. I suggest pairing it with watercress in a wholewheat sandwich. Winchester was the corn market for Hampshire for centuries, and nearby Alresford was famous for its watercress.





Jul 142017

Today is the birthday (1912) of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie legendary singer-songwriter who was influential in the careers of a host of singer-songwriters who are commonly called folk singers – people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton – as well as a host of singer-songwriters in a variety of other genres such as Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Hunter, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, Jay Farrar, Bob Weir, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers, and Sammy Walker. I am not crazy about the 1960s-era terms “folk singer” and “folk music” used in relation to singers like Guthrie or Dylan or Paxton because I prefer to reserve them for traditional singers who pass on their songs from generation to generation, rather than those whose claim to the title is that they play acoustic guitars. It is, however, a relatively well defined genre of a certain era, so minimally I’ll acknowledge its existence as such. The genre, largely following Guthrie, concerned anti-war songs, as well as children’s songs, songs of community, social justice, and social commentary. Guthrie’s best known song is probably “This Land Is Your Land”

He frequently performed with the slogan This machine kills fascists displayed on his guitar.

Guthrie was brought up by middle-class parents in Okemah, Oklahoma until he was 14, when his mother was hospitalised as a consequence of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary neurological disorder. At this time his father had to move to Pampa, Texas to repay debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. During his early teens Guthrie learned a variety of songs from his parents’ friends. He married at 19, but with the advent of the dust storms that marked the Dust Bowl period, he left his wife and three children to join the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work.

Guthrie worked at Los Angeles radio station KFVD, achieving a degree of fame from playing what was called hillbilly music in those days and made friends with Will Geer and John Steinbeck. He wrote a column for the Communist newspaper People’s World from May 1939 to January 1940. Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States’ Communist groups, although he was never a member of one. With the outbreak of World War II and the non-aggression pact the Soviet Union had signed with Germany in 1939, the owners of KFVD radio were not comfortable with Guthrie’s Communist sympathies, so he left the station, ending up in New York where he wrote and recorded his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, based on his Dust Bowl experiences, and which earned him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” In February 1940 he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a response to what he felt was an overplaying of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio.

Guthrie believed performing his anti-fascist songs and poems at home was the best use of his talents rather than serving in the army during World War II, so he lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of conscripting him as a soldier in the draft. When this attempt failed, his friends Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi persuaded him to join the U.S. Merchant Marine in June 1943. He made several voyages aboard the merchant ships SS William B. Travis, SS William Floyd, and SS Sea Porpoise while they travelled in convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. He served as a mess man and dishwasher and frequently sang for the crew and troops to buoy their spirits on transatlantic voyages. His first ship, William B. Travis, hit a mine in the Mediterranean Sea, killing one person aboard, but made it to Bizerte, Tunisia under her own power. His last ship, Sea Porpoise, took troops from the United States for the D-Day invasion. Guthrie was aboard when the ship was torpedoed off Utah Beach by the German submarine U-390 on July 5, 1944, injuring 12 of the crew. Guthrie was unhurt and the ship stayed afloat to be repaired at Newcastle in England before returning to the United States in July 1944. He was an active supporter of the National Maritime Union, the main union for wartime American sailors. Guthrie wrote songs about his experience in the Merchant Marine but was never satisfied with the results.. In 1945, Guthrie’s association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

While he was on furlough from the Army, Guthrie married Marjorie Mazia, an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School. After his discharge, they moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island and over time had four children: daughters Cathy and Nora; and sons Arlo and Joady. During this period, Guthrie wrote and recorded Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, a collection of children’s music, which includes the song “Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin’)”, written when Arlo was about nine years old.

The years living on Mermaid Avenue were among Guthrie’s most productive as a writer. His extensive writings from this time were archived and maintained by Marjorie and later his estate, mostly handled by his daughter Nora. Bob Dylan learnt of the existence of this archive containing hundreds of previously unknown lyrics and was able to obtain them eventually, although the exact details are, as usual, shrouded in Dylan’s fanciful prose which is always part fact and part fiction.  Eventually Dylan gave the lyrics to Billy Bragg who set many to music and produced 3 albums.  Here’s my favorite from the albums, “Birds and Ships” sung by Natalie Merchant:

I’m afraid Woody’s favorite food was a Nathan’s hot dog and French fries. This from Rolling Stone:

Nora vividly recalled the day the family spread Woody’s ashes there after his death on October 3rd, 1967. The ashes, she remembered, came in a small can which her mother opened with a can opener. “We didn’t have any religious traditions,” Nora said. “We were inventing things along the way.”

“It was a comedy of errors,” Nora recalled. “We climbed out on the rocks and it was really windy and we were slipping on the rocks. We threw the whole can in, and it bobbed along and came back on shore. It kept happening. Finally, we held the can down in the water, filled it with a little water and chucked it in. The can is probably still out there.”

“We didn’t know what to do afterward,” Guthrie said. “We didn’t have religious traditions. Stand in silence? Prayer? Mom said, ‘I think Woody would really want us to just go to Nathan’s. So we went over to Nathan’s and sat on the ground with our backs against the wall with my father’s favorite food, a hot dog and French fries. That was the big ceremony.”


Jul 132017

Today is the birthday (1863) of Margaret Alice Murray, an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom, working at University College London (UCL) from 1898 to 1935. She served as president of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955, and published widely over the course of her career.

Murray was born to a wealthy middle-class English family in Calcutta, in British India, and divided her youth between India, Britain, and Germany, training as both a nurse and a social worker. She moved to London in 1894 and began studying Egyptology at UCL, developing a friendship with department head Flinders Petrie, who encouraged her early academic publications and appointed her to a lectureship in 1898. In 1902–03 she took part in Petrie’s excavations at Abydos, Egypt, there discovering the Osireion temple and the following season investigated the Saqqara cemetery, both of which established her reputation in Egyptology

Murray also became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and devoting much time to improving women’s status at UCL. Unable to return to Egypt due to the First World War, she focused her research on the witch-cult hypothesis, the theory that the witch trials of early modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. The theory gained widespread attention and proved a significant influence on the emerging new religious movement of Wicca, even though it was thoroughly discredited in academic circles. Let me pause and take a general step back here before I delve the details of Murray and Wicca.

I’ve spoken countless times in these pages about the huge chasm between contemporary popular belief about the survival of a supposed ancient British pagan cult into the modern era via folk customs and actual documentary evidence of such. There is ZERO evidence of such an hypothesis, but it won’t die. If you want to dress up in costumes and dance around Stonehenge on the summer solstice, sing hymns to the sun at dawn on May 1st, or light bonfires on hilltops on Halloween (or whatever) – go right ahead. I’ve done many similar things myself in the past. They can be a lot of fun. As far as I am concerned people can do what they want, but they are not free to assert that what they are doing is a remnant of a pagan past. That assertion lacks any credibility or proof. Of course, they can believe whatever they wish, but in this case their beliefs have no merit.

An analogy might be useful here. Christianity is built on ancient texts written in classical Hebrew and Greek millennia ago. One of those texts is the book of Genesis which recounts at the beginning how God created the universe in 6 days (which by relatively modern calculations is reckoned to have occurred a few thousand years ago).  Some Christians accept this account as the literal truth, but many (perhaps most) see the story as a useful device in the pursuit of a certain kind of faith, but not to be taken as genuine history.  I see the story of Wicca being the survival of an ancient fertility cult centered on a horned god as being of the same order as the Genesis story of creation. Believe it if you want, but it has no basis in credible history.

The witch-cult hypothesis proposes that the witch trials of the early modern period in the West were an attempt to suppress a pre-Christian, pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. According to its proponents, this witch-cult revolved around the worship of a Horned God of fertility whom the Christian persecutors referred to as the Devil, and whose cult members participated in nocturnal rites at the witches’ Sabbath in which they venerated this deity. The hypothesis was pioneered by German scholars Karl Ernst Jarcke and Franz Josef Mone in the early 19th century, before being adopted by the French historian Jules Michelet, U.S. feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and U.S. folklorist Charles Leland later in that century. The hypothesis received its most prominent exposition when adopted by Margaret Murray, who presented her version of it first in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and later in The God of the Witches (1931) and in her contribution to the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Murray’s witch-cult theories provided the blueprint for the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, with Murray often being referred to as the “Grandmother of Wicca.” Her narrative was the one around which Wicca built itself in England during the 1940s and 1950s with Wicca claiming to be the survival of this witch-cult.

In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) Murray stated that she had restricted her research to Great Britain, although made some recourse to sources from France, Flanders, and New England. She drew a division between what she termed “Operative Witchcraft”, which referred to the performance of charms and spells with any purpose, and “Ritual Witchcraft”, by which she meant “the ancient religion of Western Europe”, a fertility-based faith that she also termed “the Dianic cult.” She claimed that the cult had very probably once been devoted to the worship of both a male deity and a “Mother Goddess” but that “at the time when the cult is recorded the worship of the male deity appears to have superseded that of the female.” In her argument, Murray claimed that the figure referred to as the Devil in the trial accounts was the witches’ god, “manifest and incarnate,” to whom the witches offered their prayers. She claimed that at the witches’ meetings, the god would be personified, usually by a man or at times by a woman or an animal.

According to Murray, members joined the cult either as children or adults through what Murray called “admission ceremonies.” She asserted that applicants had to agree to join of their own free will, and agree to devote themselves to the service of their deity. She also claimed that in some cases, these individuals had to sign a covenant or were baptized into the faith. At the same time, she claimed that the religion was largely passed down hereditary lines. Murray described the religion as being divided into covens containing thirteen members, led by a coven officer who was often termed the “Devil” in the trial accounts, but who was accountable to a “Grand Master.” According to Murray, the records of the coven were kept in a secret book, with the coven also disciplining its members, to the extent of executing those deemed traitors.

Murray called this witch-cult “a joyous religion” claiming that the two primary festivals that it celebrated were on May Eve and November Eve, with other dates of religious observation being 1st February and 1st August, the winter and summer solstices, and Easter. She asserted that the “General Meeting of all members of the religion” were known as Sabbaths, while the more private ritual meetings were known as Esbats. The Esbats, Murray claimed, were nocturnal rites that began at midnight, and were “primarily for business, whereas the Sabbath was purely religious”. At the former, magical rites were performed both for malevolent and benevolent ends. She also asserted that the Sabbath ceremonies involved the witches paying homage to the deity, renewing their “vows of fidelity and obedience” to him, and providing him with accounts of all the magical actions that they have conducted since the previous Sabbath. Once this business had been concluded, admissions to the cult or marriages were conducted, ceremonies and fertility rites took place, and then the Sabbath ended with feasting and dancing.

Murray called Ritual Witchcraft “a fertility cult” and she asserted that many of its rites were designed to ensure fertility and rain-making. She claimed that there were four types of sacrifice performed by the witches: blood-sacrifice, in which the neophyte writes their name in blood, the sacrifice of animals, the sacrifice of a non-Christian child to procure magical powers, and the sacrifice of the witches’ god by fire to ensure fertility. She interpreted accounts of witches’ shapeshifting into various animals as being representative of a rite in which the witches dressed as specific animals which they took to be sacred. She asserted that accounts of familiars were based on the witches’ use of animals, which she divided into “divining familiars” used in divination and “domestic familiars” used in other magic rites.

Murray asserted that a pre-Christian fertility-based religion had survived the Christianization process in Britain, although that it came to be “practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community.” She believed that folk stories of fairies in Britain were based on a surviving race of “dwarfs” who continued to live on the island up until the early modern period. She asserted that this race followed the same pagan religion as the witches, thus explaining the folkloric connection between the two. In the appendices to the book, she also alleged that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were members of the witch-cult and were executed for it.

In The God of the Witches she began to refer to the witches’ deity as the Horned God, and asserted that it was an entity who had been worshipped in Europe since the Paleolithic. She further asserted that in the Bronze Age, the worship of the deity could be found throughout Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, claiming that the depiction of various horned figures from these societies proved that. Among the evidence cited were the horned figures found at Mohenjo-Daro, which are often interpreted as depictions of Pashupati, as well as the deities Osiris and Amon in Egypt and the Minotaur of Minoan Crete. Within continental Europe, she claimed that the Horned God was represented by Pan in Greece, Cernunnos in Gaul, and in various Scandinavian rock carvings. Claiming that this divinity had been declared the Devil by the Christian authorities, she nevertheless asserted that his worship was testified in officially Christian societies right through to the modern period, citing folk practices such as the Dorset Ooser and the Puck Fair as evidence of his veneration.

In 1954, she published The Divine King in England, in which she greatly extended on the theory, taking in influence from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which made the claim that societies all over the world sacrificed their kings to the deities of nature. In her book, she claimed that this practice had continued into medieval England, and that, for instance, the death of William II was really a ritual sacrifice

Contemporary historian Ronald Hutton has suggested that Murray’s theory was popular in some quarters because it “appealed to so many of the emotional impulses of the age,” including “the notion of the English countryside as a timeless place full of ancient secrets,” the literary popularity of Pan, the widespread belief that the majority of British had remained pagan long after the process of Christianization, and the idea that folk customs represented pagan survivals (my own personal crusade to debunk).

Murray’s theories never received support from experts in the early modern witch trials, nor from folklorists and anthropologists. All her publications are littered with factual errors and methodological problems. She drew sweeping conclusions from limited primary evidence which she carefully selected whilst ignoring anything that disagreed with her thesis, she took data out of cultural context, and she made over general assumptions about the nature of pre-Christian Britain. Pre-Christian Britain was hardly a monolithic culture as she claimed it was. The people spoke a number of different languages and came from widely different backgrounds: Celtic, Germanic, Norse etc. Furthermore, she succumbed to what I call the “folk gap” fallacy, that is, somehow “pagan” practices survived in Britain for 1,000 years from ancient times to the Middle Ages with no documentary evidence whatsoever. These practices were supposedly all guardedly secret and buried deep. You can’t rule this assertion out of course, but I (and all serious scholars) find it hard to believe. It is also hard to believe, as Murray claimed, that the majority of Britons in the Middle Ages remained pagan.

Murray’s work was almost entirely ignored by historians and anthropologists as being too faulty to be worthy of comment. Murray for her part did not respond directly to the criticisms of her work, but believed that her critics were simply acting out of their own Christian prejudices to non-Christian religion. Definitive academic rejection of the witch-cult theory occurred during the 1970s. A variety of scholars across Europe and North America – including Alan Macfarlane, Erik Midelfort, William Monter, Robert Muchembled, Gerhard Schormann, Bente Alver and Bengt Ankarloo – published in-depth studies of the archival records from the witch trials, leaving no doubt that those tried for witchcraft were not practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion. Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander in 2007 wrote:

That this ‘old religion’ persisted secretly, without leaving any evidence, is, of course, possible, just as it is possible that below the surface of the moon lie extensive deposits of Stilton cheese. Anything is possible. But it is nonsense to assert the existence of something for which no evidence exists. The Murrayites ask us to swallow a most peculiar sandwich: a large piece of the wrong evidence between two thick slices of no evidence at all.

During the 1940s and 1950s in Britain, Wicca emerged claiming to be a survival of Murray’s witch-cult (with some other influences as well). Wicca’s theological structure, revolving around a Horned God and Mother Goddess, was adopted from Murray’s ideas about the ancient witch-cult, and Wiccan groups were named covens and their meetings termed esbats, both words that Murray had popularized. As with Murray’s witch-cult, Wicca’s practitioners entered via an initiation ceremony. Murray’s claims that witches wrote down their spells in a book may have been an influence on Wicca’s Book of Shadows. Wicca’s early system of seasonal festivities was also based on Murray’s framework.

The historian Philip Heselton suggested that the New Forest coven – the oldest alleged Wiccan group – was founded circa 1935 by esotericists aware of Murray’s theory and who may have believed themselves to be reincarnated witch-cult members. It was Gerald Gardner, who claimed to be an initiate of the New Forest coven, who established the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca and popularized the religion. Gardner and Murray knew each other, with Murray writing the foreword to Gardner’s 1954 book Witchcraft Today. Murray’s witch-cult theories were likely also a core influence on the non-Gardnerian Wiccan traditions that were established in Britain and Australia between 1930 and 1970. In San Francisco during the late 1960s, Murray’s writings were among the sources used by Aidan A. Kelly in the creation of his Wiccan tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. In Los Angeles during the early 1970s, they were used by Zsuzsanna Budapest when she was establishing her feminist-oriented tradition of Dianic Wicca.

Members of the Wiccan community gradually became aware of academia’s rejection of the witch-cult theory. Accordingly, belief in its literal truth declined during the 1980s and 1990s, with many Wiccans instead coming to view it as a legend that conveyed metaphorical or symbolic truths. Others insisted that the historical origins of the religion did not matter and that instead Wicca was legitimated by the spiritual experiences it gave to its participants. In 1999 Ronald Hutton wrote The Triumph of the Moon, a historical study exploring Wicca’s early development, and which exerted a strong impact on the British Pagan community, further eroding belief in the Murrayite theory among Wiccans. Conversely, other practitioners clung on to the theory, treating it as an important article of faith and rejecting post-Murrayite scholarship on European witchcraft. Several prominent practitioners continued to insist that Wicca was a religion with origins stretching back to the Paleolithic, while others rejected the validity of historical scholarship and emphasized intuition and emotion as the arbiter of truth.

Contemporary Wiccans are pretty eclectic in their recipe suggestions for special occasions, so I’d be hard put to find anything approaching a signature recipe. If you search online, for example, you’ll find a lot of confusion about what’s Celtic versus what’s Germanic or Norse, and also about the ways in which these cultures historically were both distinct and syncretic. “Celtic” tends to be used as a synonym for “really traditional” or “really old” whereas Celtic cultures have evolved, in the same way that others have (with influences from all over the place), and, furthermore, Irish Celts were Christianized long before the Anglo-Saxons.

For me the genuinely positive aspect of Wicca is its reverence for the earth. This reverence not only means avoiding foods laden with chemicals and pesticides, but also eating seasonally using local products. I’ve been following this pattern my whole life. I don’t eat strawberries in December (in the northern hemisphere) for example. They are for May and June. One of the positive values in Mrs Beeton is her insistence on the seasonality of every dish: eat foods when they are fresh and plentiful LOCALLY. Currently I eat a lot of rice, noodles, and greens with ginger and mushrooms because I live in Mandalay. I’m not going to insist on steak and kidney puddings or fish and chips.

Here’s Mrs Beeton’s suggestions for dinners for July. Take your pick (if you live in England !!!):


  1. Sunday.—1. Salmon trout and parsley-and-butter. 2. Roast fillet of real, boiled bacon-cheek, peas, potatoes. 3. Raspberry-and-currant tart, baked custard pudding.
  2. Monday.—1. Green-pea soup. 2. Roast fowls garnished with water-cresses; gravy, bread sauce; cold veal and salad. 3. Cherry tart.
  3. Tuesday.—1. John dory and lobster sauce. 2. Curried fowl with remains of cold fowls, dish of rice, veal rolls with remains of cold fillet. 3. Strawberry cream.
  4. Wednesday.—1. Roast leg of mutton, vegetable marrow, and potatoes, melted butter. 2. Black-currant pudding.
  5. Thursday.—1. Fried soles, anchovy sauce. 2. Mutton cutlets and tomato sauce, bashed mutton, peas, potatoes. 3. Lemon dumplings.
  6. Friday.—1. Boiled brisket of beef, carrots, turnips, suet dumplings, peas, potatoes. 2. Baked semolina pudding.
  7. Saturday.—1. Cold beef and salad, lamb cutlets and peas. 2. Rolled jam pudding.
Jul 122017

Today is the feast day of Saint Veronica, a pious woman of Jerusalem who, according to Catholic tradition, was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face miraculously impressed upon it. This piece of cloth became known as the Veil of Veronica.

The name Veronica is a Latin form of the Greek Berenice (Βερενίκη, Berenikē), a Macedonian name, meaning “bearer of victory.” A false theory of the origin of the name emerged in the Latin West. Since the Latin word for “true” or “authentic” is “vera”, it was thought, wrongly, that the name is derived from the Latin phrase “true image” — vera icon. This theory still persists in some quarters.

There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48). Her name is later identified as Veronica by the apocryphal “Acts of Pilate”. The story was later elaborated in the 11th century by adding that Christ gave her a portrait of himself on a cloth, with which she later cured the Emperor Tiberius. The linking of this with the bearing of the cross in the Passion, and the miraculous appearance of the image only occurs around 1380, in the internationally popular book Meditations on the life of Christ. The story of Veronica is celebrated in the sixth Station of the Cross in many Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Western Orthodox churches.

The Devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus was eventually approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1885 with Veronica’s feast commemorated on 12 July. Numerous purported “true” images of the face of Christ are venerated throughout the world, many predating the famous shroud of Turin.

The most common pass with the cape in bullfighting is called a “verónica.” The matador does not move as the bull passes, but simply swirls his cape (metaphorically brushing the bull’s face much as Veronica wiped Jesus’).

The dish for the day has to be sole Veronica, a simple but tasty dish of sole poached in grape juice and grapes. Make sure you use 100% pure, unadulterated white grape juice without added sugar. Sole is a delicately flavored fish, and grapes make a subtle complement.

Sole Veronica


4 sole fillets, 4 oz/100 g each
8 fl oz/ 250 ml grape juice
salt and pepper
40 grapes (approx.), seeded


Place the fillets in a single layer in a wide pan or skillet. Pour over the grape juice and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is barely cooked. Add the grapes and warm through for a further 2 or 3 minutes.

Serve one fillet per dish with the sauce and grapes divided between them, and with boiled new potatoes.

Serves 4



Jul 112017

Today has been designated the day of the bandoneon in Argentina by official law of Congress.  This date was chosen because it is the birthday of (1914) Aníbal Carmelo Troilo, much loved and revered bandoneon player, composer, and orchestra leader in the 1930s and 1940s in the heyday of tango in Buenos Aires.  The bandoneon is the quintessential tango instrument even though it was invented in Germany and produced there exclusively until the 1940s. Subsequently classic bandoneons became rarer and rarer in Argentina and helped contribute to the slow death of traditional tango.  Here’s a link to a documentary that, in my opinion, is the best single review of the history and current status of the bandoneon in Argentina. It follows the fortunes of a young woman who is attempting to join an orquesta tipica (tango band) and learn from one of the masters.  It also talks about the slow demise of the bandoneon in Buenos Aires and has interviews with famous older players (as well as many full-length performances and discussions of playing style).  It is around 90 minutes long, so I have not embedded it here for the sake of conserving disc space. It is in Argentine Spanish with English subtitles and is well worth your time if you want a really comprehensive understanding of the instrument:


Here is Troilo playing his own composition“Sur” in rare live footage:

The bandoneon is named for its inventor, Heinrich Band (1821–1860), and was originally intended as an instrument for religious and popular music of the day, in contrast to its free reed predecessors the concertina and the button accordion which were largely used for folk music. Around 1870, German and Italian emigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina, where it was adopted into the nascent genre of tango music which was slowly emerging as a distinct musical and dance form at the time, particularly (but not exclusively) in the docklands of my old barrio, san Telmo.

By 1910 bandoneons were being produced expressly for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, declining popularity and the disruption of German manufacturing in World War II led to an end of bandoneon mass-production. Bandoneons were never produced in Argentina itself despite their popularity. As a result, by the 2000s, vintage bandoneons had become rare and expensive limiting prospective bandeonistas. In 2014, the National University of Lanús announced their development of an affordable Argentine-made bandoneon, which they hope to market for one-third to one-half of the cost of vintage instruments.

The bandoneon is like a concertina in that it has buttons on the left and right hand, but it has many more than a typical concertina so that it can play completely chromatically over a number of octaves. Typically bandoneons are bisonic, meaning that each button produces one note when the bellows are pushed, and a different note when they are pulled.  Here’s a fairly standard layout (click to enlarge):

The bandoneon is not an enormously difficult instrument to play if all you want to do is bang out a simple tune with a few chords. That was its original intention. But to master the instrument for tango is a lifetime’s occupation, and very few people succeed. You really have to start at 5 or 6 years old, and even then, with constant practice, you are not ready to join an orquesta until your 20s at the earliest. The bandoneon in this respect is like any classical orchestral instruments. It’s not just a matter of playing the notes, but of understanding the subtleties of rhythm and intonation that are unique to the instrument and to tango itself.

As Argentina modernizes, classic tango and bandoneon playing are seen as old fashioned, and, consequently, are dying as younger people embrace pop, rock, and hip-hop. To my mind, and to the minds of many Argentinos, this state of affairs is a tragedy because tango is truly Argentine grown. It has some roots in European musical style, to be sure, but what it evolved into is uniquely Argentino. Even attempts to modernize it by the likes of Ástor Piazzolla, (who played with Troilo before branching out), weaken the spirit of tango, in my oh-so-humble opinion, by introducing elements of blues, jazz, etc. which are not Argentine products at all. For me, nuevo tango is simply not tango. Most foreigners don’t get it because they don’t know real tango to begin with. If you go to plaza Dorrego in san Telmo on a Sunday afternoon, chances are you’ll run into one of my favorite tango orquestas, playing down a side street opposite iglesia san Pedro. They are young enthusiasts keeping the tradition alive.

Over 4 years of posting I’ve pretty much covered the waterfront when it comes to Buenos Aires cooking.  There’s not a whole lot to it to begin with. Some regional recipes find their way into Capital’s kitchens, however.  Here’s a recipe for Patagonian Carbonada Criolla which I’ve had once or twice made by local cooks. Its origins in European stews are obvious but the ingredients are a little different – especially the dried apricots. Argentine beef is best of course. Even stewing beef is a lot tenderer there. You may have to adjust cooking times if you use your local beef.

Carbonada Criolla


⅓ cup olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ lbs stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 white potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbspn sugar(optional)
1 large winter squash, peeled and cubed
7 oz dried apricots, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
2 ears sweetcorn, sliced in 1” rounds


Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté the peppers and onions until they are lightly golden.

Add the beef and brown on all sides.

Add the stewed tomatoes, beef broth, potatoes, sugar (if used), squash and apricots plus salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook for an hour. Check periodically to make sure the stew is not too dry.  If so add a little more beef broth. Simmer longer is the beef is not tender.

Add the corn and cook for 15 minutes longer.

Serve hot in soup dishes.