Aug 142018

Today is the birthday (1502) of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a Flemish painter, sculptor, architect, author and designer of woodcuts, goldsmith’s work, stained glass and tapestries who was influential in his day, but is largely forgotten nowadays. He worked in Antwerp and Brussels and was appointed court painter to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a polyglot, and published translations of ancient Roman and modern Italian architectural treatises into Dutch, French and German. These publications played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Renaissance ideas in Northern Europe, and contributed to the transition in Northern Europe from the late Gothic style, then prevalent, towards a modern Classical architecture.

Coecke van Aelst was the son of the Deputy Mayor of Aalst. Most of his biography is filled with “probablies” because there is little hard documentation. He probably first studied art under Bernard van Orley, a leading Renaissance painter based in Brussels. There are no documents that prove this apprenticeship but there are strong stylistic similarities between the styles of the two artists. He may have later studied in Italy where he would have made drawings of classical sculpture and architecture. His Italian influence could, however, also be attributed to the fact that Raphael’s tapestry cartoons were available in Brussels, where they were used for the manufacture of tapestries around 1516. However, as Coecke van Aelst clearly was familiar with Raphael’s fresco of the Triumph of Galatea located in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, it seems likely he did in fact travel to Italy.

Coecke van Aelst married twice. He married his first wife Anna van Dornicke in 1525 shortly after his move to Antwerp. Anna was the daughter of Jan Mertens van Dornicke, one of the most successful painters working in Antwerp. His father in law was possibly his teacher. Coecke van Aelst took over his father-in-law’s workshop after the latter’s death in 1527. There were two children from this first marriage, Michiel and Pieter (the Younger). The latter was also a painter. After the death of his first wife (before 1529), Coecke van Aelst had an affair with Anthonette van der Sandt (also known as Antonia van der Sant). The pair never married but had a daughter, Antonette, and at least one son, Pauwel who also became a painter.

Coecke van Aelst is recorded joining the local Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp in 1527. In 1533, he traveled to Constantinople where he stayed for one year during which he tried to convince the Turkish sultan to give him commissions for tapestries, but failed. He made numerous drawings during his stay in Turkey including of the buildings, people and the indigenous flora. He seems to have retained from this trip an abiding interest in the accurate rendering of nature that gave his tapestries an added dimension. The drawings which he made during his stay in Turkey were posthumously published by his widow under the title Ces moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz avecq les regions y appertenantes ont este au vif contrefaictez (Antwerp,1553).

Upon his return to Antwerp in 1534, Coecke van Aelst produced designs for a large-scale figure, called ‘Druon Antigoon’ or the ‘Giant of Antwerp’ of which the head in papier-maché possibly still survives (Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp). The giant made its premiere many years later in 1549 at the occasion of the Joyous entry into Antwerp of Prince Philip (the future Philip II). The giant became a regular fixture in public processions in Antwerp until the 20th century. In the year 1537 Coecke van Aelst was elected a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke. He also received a stipend from the Antwerp city government. Around this time he received major commissions for the design of stained-glass windows including for the Antwerp Cathedral.

Around 1538–1539 Coecke van Aelst married for the second time. His second wife Mayken Verhulst was originally from Mechelen and a painter of miniatures. The couple had three children, two daughters called Katelijne and Maria and a son named Pauwel (even though he had another son with this name). Pieter Brueghel the Elder married Coecke van Aelst’s daughter Maria (called ‘Mayken’). It is possible that Coecke van Aelst’s second wife was the first teacher of her grandchildren, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Coecke van Aelst was appointed court painter to Charles V only a few months prior to his death. He was in Brussels in 1550 where he died in December. As his two youngest children died at the same time, it is possible that all three family members were victims of a contagious epidemic.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst was a versatile artist and a master designer who devised projects across a wide range of different media, including panel paintings, sculptures, prints, tapestries, stained glass and goldsmith’s work. No signed, and few reliably documented, paintings by Coecke van Aelst have survived. His drawings are an important witness to his skills as they are the only body of works by the artist, which are signed. Approximately 40 drawings are regarded as autographs, in addition to cartoons and cartoon fragments on which he likely worked with assistants. The majority of his drawings are related to his tapestry designs.

Coecke van Aelst’s composition of the Last Supper became extremely popular in the 16th century and many versions were produced. The version dated 1527 in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland in Belvoir Castle in  Grantham, is believed to be the original from which all the other ones were derived. The composition was popularized via a print of it made by Hendrik Goltzius. His painting of the subject was freely inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of about 1515–1516 based on a lost drawing by Raphael. The gestures of the apostles are derived from Dürer’s print of the Last Supper dated 1523. There exist about 45 versions of this composition, which were executed with the assistance of workshop assistants. A great number of the versions are dated, and of these 6 or 7 are dated 1528. Van Aelst likely produced the original drawing for the Last Supper, which was subsequently copied on to a panel by means of intermediary cartoons. The composition could be ordered in two formats: 50 x 60 cm and 60 x 80 cm. The large version was more popular than the smaller one.

Small Biblical scenes in the background of the composition place the Last Supper in its theological context. Through the window it is possible to discern a scene depicting the Entry into Jerusalem, the principal event preceding the Last Supper according to Christian literature. Scenes of the Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise can be discerned in the ornaments of the upper panes of the window. The medals on the wall depict the biblical stories of the Slaying of Cain and David and Goliath. The scene representing the slaying of Cain is based on a print by the prominent Romanist artist Jan Gossaert. The whole iconography accentuates the Christian preoccupation with original sin and the belief that mankind’s salvation solely relies on Christ’s sacrifice. The original version of 1527 expresses in some of its details an iconography, which shows a close link to the Protestant Reformation. In the other versions this meaning is less pronounced.

Another popular and widely distributed work was the composition St. Jerome in his Study of which Coecke van Aelst and his workshop produced multiple versions. Saint Jerome is noted for his translation into Latin of the Bible,  which he produced whilst living in a monastery in Palestine. In the version of the subject in the Walters Museum, Coecke van Aelst suggests the Oriental setting by the view visible through the window which shows a landscape with camels. To the wall is affixed an admonition, “Cogita Mori” (Think upon death), a vanitas motif that is reiterated by the skull (which Jerome supposedly always had with him as he wrote). Further reminders of the motifs of the passage of time and the imminence of death are the image of the Last Judgment visible in the saint’s Bible, the candle and the hourglass. Another version of this subject was sold at Christie’s (28 January 2015, New York, lot 104). This version reprises similar iconographic elements, which stress Christian beliefs regarding the transience of human life and the importance of the sacrifice of Christ for people to find salvation at the time of the Last Judgement.

Coecke van Aelst was renowned for his tapestry designs which were executed by the Brussels tapestry workshops. These designs were typically small-scale drawings in black-and-white. His cartoon for the Martyrdom of St. Peter (Brussels Town Hall) is in grisaille with touches of green and red while the names of the other colors, such as gold or blue, are written in. The patrons for the tapestries included Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Cosimo de’ Medici. His reputation as a tapestry designer was established through his popular series of the Story of Saint Paul, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Story of Abraham, the Story of Vertumnus and Pomona, the Story of Joshua, the Creation, Poesia, the Conquest of Tunis and Julius Caesar.

Coecke van Aelst is noted for his translation of Vitruvius’ De architectura into Flemish (Dutch). He, and after his death his widow, Mayken Verhulst, published the five books of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise Architettura in Flemish, French and High German (the German translation was done by another translator). Coecke van Aelst’s translation of Vitruvius was hailed by the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius as the only Dutch-language book to discuss the building styles of other countries. In line with Italian translations of Vitruvius published earlier in the 16th century, his translation gave prominence to woodcut illustrations of the text and used columns to indicate the difference between three kinds of architectural representation: plan, elevation, and view. This was a clear break with the few treatises on architecture published earlier in the Low Countries which generally did not provide any visual exegesis. Coecke van Aelst’s 1539 Flemish translation of Serlio provided to the Low Countries a relatively affordable translation of one of the first illustrated architectural treatises in Europe.

For today’s recipe I have chosen potjevleesch, a traditional Flemish dish, which was certainly well known in Coecke van Aelst’s time. The recipe below is translated from a 1302 version by William Tirel. It is still a popular dish in Belgium. The name can be translated into English as “potted meat,” although in appearance it is more like a terrine. It is traditionally made in a ceramic dish—such as a marmite—from three or four different types of meat and held together either with gelatin or natural fats coming from the meats used. The meat (along with sliced onions, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaves) is covered in water or water and vinegar and then cooked either on a low heat in the oven or on a low flame on top of the stove for 3 hours. After cooking the dish is chilled in the refrigerator and served cold. Nowadays the Flemish serve the dish – as they do everything – with fried potatoes (which they do not call French fries). It is customary to serve the dish with Dutch gin.

Here is my edited version of the original 14th century recipe in translation:

Make a jelly by boiling calves’ feet in 1 liter of white wine, with 20 fresh juniper berries. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Desalt a pork shoulder. Debone a chicken and rabbit. Cut the pork, chicken, rabbit, veal, and calf’s foot into pieces about the size of half a quail. Place them in a pot with juniper berries and grated ginger, a little must and an abundance of saffron. Salt. Pour over the broth, a cup of gin and sour grapes. Cover with a lid sealed with a flour and egg white paste. Simmer slowly for 3 to 4 hours without boiling. Then lift the lid and bring to a rolling boil. Store in the cellar.

Here is a modernized version of the recipe. Note that Tirel does not mention onions, but they are usual nowadays. You can vary the proportions of meats as you wish. I have included gelatin here, because it is more practical than boiling bones and feet.



300 gm deboned chicken, cut in chunks
300 gm deboned rabbit, cut in chunks
300 gm flank of veal, cut in chunks
300 gm pork belly, cut in chunks
2 onions, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper,
20 juniper berries
1 sachet powdered saffron
white wine or wine vinegar
2 sachets gelatin


Arrange in the bottom of the pot a layer of sliced onions. Add a sprinkling of salt, pepper, juniper berries and saffron. Then make layers with chicken, rabbit, veal and pork, alternating with onions and aromatics. Pour white wine (or wine vinegar) mixed with water evenly over the meat so that it is completely covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer, add the gelatin mixed with ½ cup of boiling water, and cook, tightly covered, over low heat for 3 to 4 hours. Allow to cool slowly and then refrigerate for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight, so that the gelatin sets up. Serve with fried or boiled potatoes, and a green salad.

Aug 132018

Today is the birthday (1666) of William Wotton, an English theologian, classical scholar and linguist, who is largely forgotten nowadays, but in his day was known for his involvement in what became called the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. I’ll get to that in a minute. In Wales he is remembered as the collector and first translator of the ancient Welsh laws.

William Wotton was the second son of the Rev. Henry Wotton, rector of Wrentham, Suffolk. He was a child prodigy who could read verses from the Bible in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew before he was 6 years old. In April 1676, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was sent to Catharine Hall, Cambridge, and sat for his B.A. in 1679 (13 years old). By this time Wotton had learned Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldee, as well as a knowledge of logic, philosophy, mathematics, geography, chronology, and history. His parents died whilst he was still at Cambridge, and as a teenager he was taken into the household of Gilbert Burnet, later bishop of Salisbury. He was awarded a fellowship at St John’s College, where he received his M.A. in 1683 and earned a B.D. in 1691. In 1686 he was appointed curate of Brimpton in Berkshire and the following year he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In January 1689 he was appointed vicar of Lacock in Wiltshire, which he held until his resignation in 1693. Soon after ordination he was also appointed chaplain to Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham, and tutor to his family. Finch presented him with the rectory of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, in 1693.

Wotton began his scholarly career as the translator of Louis Dupin’s A new history of ecclesiastical writers, (13 vols. 1692–99). However, he is chiefly remembered for his share in the controversy about the respective merits of ancient and modern learning. In his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694, and again 1697) he took the part of the moderns, although in a fair and judicial spirit.  The “ancients versus moderns” debate began in France in the early 16th century with a number of “moderns” claiming that the renewed interest in Classical arts and philosophy during the Renaissance, should not be slavish imitation of the ancients, but should be tempered with an awareness of the accomplishments of modern times. The “ancients” championed ancient learning over the modern. The “quarrel” got erudite and pedantic, and I am not going to dissect it for you. Do your own research. Simplistically, it can be boiled down to the importance of “authority.” Should we admire ancient authors as sacred (i.e. authorities), or should we move on? Medieval scholasticism got mired in authority. To be a scholar you had to first read all the authorities on a subject, learn them inside-out, and then add your own bits of wisdom without contradicting any of the authorities. The orthodox rabbinical tradition works this way, and my education at Oxford in the 1970s was not so very different. Every week I was given an essay topic, for example, “Was the author of Mark’s gospel Paul’s traveling companion, John Mark?” or “When was John’s gospel written?” My job for the week was to distill out all the arguments from the authorities, divide them into camps, and conclude with my decision as to which of the camps (authorities) was correct. This was not quite Medieval scholasticism in that the authorities were allowed to disagree with one another, but I was not allowed to disagree with them. You can guess what I think of this as a method of education.

Swift attacked Wotton for pedantry in The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub, but that Wotton was far from being a pedant. He had a thorough command of the arguments, and was fair in his assessments. Wotton responded calling Swift’s Tale “one of the profanest banters upon the religion of Jesus Christ, as such, that ever yet appeared.”

Wotton wrote a History of Rome in 1701 at the request of Bishop Burnet, which was later used by the historian Edward Gibbon. In recognition, Burnet appointed him as a prebend of Salisbury from 1705. In 1707 Wotton was awarded a Lambeth degree of Doctor of Divinity by Archbishop Thomas Tenison in recognition of his writings in support of the established Church of England against the Deists. Around 1713 Wotton also developed ideas concerning the relationship between languages introducing the concept of an early proto-language by relating Icelandic, the Romance languages, and Greek. This pre-dated Sir William Jones’ famous lecture comparing Sanskrit with the Classical languages, by more than 70 years. These theories were later published after Wotton’s death, as A discourse concerning the confusion of languages at Babel (1730).

Throughout his adult life, Wotton was said to be “a most excellent preacher, but a drunken whoring soul”. He was also very extravagant, transforming his rectory into a 32-room mansion. He was, however, able to borrow money against future expectations of ecclesiastical preferment as a result of his close friendship with William Wake, then bishop of Lincoln. Between the summer of 1711 and the Spring of 1712, Wotton appears to have experienced a mid-life crisis, and he scandalized the neighborhood on many occasions by being found drunk in public, or else was known to have spent prolonged periods in local brothels. As a result, he was initially warned about his behavior by Wake, who later broke off their friendship and rescinded his promise of providing an additional living in Buckinghamshire. As soon as it became known that the rector’s expectations had been dashed, local businesses began to press for the payment of their debts. In May 1714, Wotton was forced to abandon his rectory at Milton Keynes to avoid his creditors, and for 7 years he lived in Carmarthen in south-west Wales under the assumed name of Dr. William Edwards.

Whilst in Carmarthen, Wotton turned his life around and returned to his studies. He was also able to re-establish his friendship with Wake, who had become Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1715. Wotton began to study Welsh, and produced an important bilingual parallel text edition of the Welsh and Latin texts of the medieval Welsh laws traditionally attributed to Hywel Dda. To do this he had first to identify and obtain transcripts of around 15 known manuscripts in either Latin or Medieval Welsh, and establish an authoritative text, and then begin the difficult task of translating the Mediaeval Welsh terminology which appeared in both the Latin and Welsh versions, but the meaning of which had been lost by the 18th century. From 1721 Wotton was assisted by the Welsh scholar Moses Williams. Wotton lived to complete the translation but was working on an accompanying glossary when he died. This was completed by Williams, and the whole work was published in 1730 by his son-in-law William Clarke in a large folio edition under the title Leges Wallicae.

Whilst in Carmarthen he also conducted surveys of the cathedrals of St David’s and Llandaff which were published by his friend Browne Willis in 1717 and 1718. He published Miscellaneous Discourses relating to the Traditions and Usages of the Scribes and Pharisees which included a translation of part of the Mishnah in 1718. Wotton had repaid his creditors and was able to return to Bath by October 1721 and London by June 1722 but was in very poor health. He was still working on his Leges Wallicae, when he died of dropsy in Buxted in Sussex, on 13th February 1727.

In the spirit of the quarrel of ancients and moderns we can put an ancient and modern recipe side by side. You would be forgiven for thinking that the modern recipe is superior. What you are not taking into account is that ALL recipes make assumptions about what the reader can be expected to know. If you read a modern recipe for a cake that begins “cream the butter and sugar” You probably know what “cream” means in this context, that is, if you have any baking experience. Someone reading the recipe 2,000 years from now might have no idea what it means, and think that 21st century recipes are incomplete. So, it’s not a question of saying that modern recipes are better than ancient ones, but, rather, that we know the implicit assumptions in modern recipes, but not in ancient ones.

Apicius gives this recipe for mussels in De re coquinaria (c. 1st century CE) and I have mentioned it before. Here’s the original Latin:

X. in metulis: liquamen porrum concisum cuminum passum satureiam, uinum; mixtum facies aquatius et ibi mitulos quoques.

Roughly translated:

10. For mussels: liquamen (fermented anchovy sauce), cut up leeks, cumin, passum (very sweet wine), savory, and wine. Mix these ingredients with water and add mussels.

On the surface this recipe does not seem much to go on, and a modern cook would normally want more detail, particularly as concerns quantities. The instructions are also pretty slim by modern standards. I could give a modern recipe thus:



2 lb fresh mussels
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 leek, chopped
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp chopped fresh savory
½ cup sweet sherry
½ cup dry white wine


Make sure the mussels are thoroughly cleaned and beards removed. Discard any that are not tightly shut.

Place the ingredients, except the mussels, in a large saucepan. Add around 2 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, add the mussels and cover. Cook for several minutes and check to see that all the mussels have opened.

Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon, and place them in a serving bowl. Carefully pour the cooking juices over the mussels, but make sure not to pour out the last part, because it may contain grit.

You might think that my recipe is better than the ancient one. Really there is not much difference between the two. Apicius does not say you have to boil the mussels, he assumes that you know this. He is making a number of assumptions. But my modern recipe makes many assumptions also. Apicius actually gives you a lot more freedom than I do. Sure, you can vary my quantities at will, but most cooks will try the quantities as given first, and then adjust them later. With Apicius, you have to make decisions about quantities from the start.  I’d be happy, for example, to use 3 or 4 leeks, and serve the mussels on a bed of them, with or without the sauce. This idea would not occur to you with the modern recipe because you are thinking of a watery sauce for the mussels.


Aug 112018

Today is the birthday (1833) of Kido Takayoshi (木戸 孝允) (born Wada Kogorō (和田 小五郎), also referred to as Kido Kôin (木戸 こういん), a Japanese samurai who is considered one of the three great architects of the Meiji Restoration. As I noted here the Meiji Restoration was not quite what it is portrayed as in Western media. As I also noted here recently the Meiji Restoration got rid of the old Japanese rigid social structure, not because it was old fashioned, but because it had become unstable, and unable to deal with present realities. Many Westerners lament the loss of Edo Period culture in Japan, but the Japanese (by and large) do not. Think of this in terms of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a supposedly Medieval re-enactment society (but mostly Renaissance, with many anachronisms of its own). All the members want to be knights and nobles (or perhaps wizards and such). No one wants to be a peasant, yet the bulk of Medieval Europeans were peasants. Likewise, the bulk of Edo Period Japanese people were peasants with no hope of social mobility. Meanwhile, the samurai class had hereditary (high) status – end of story. Obviously, the samurai class did not want to see an end to the system, but the great bulk of the population were happy to see the changes. Forget The Last Samurai, it’s sentimental claptrap (and not historically accurate either). Takayoshi was a samurai, and was one of the architects of the system that ended their hereditary privilege.

Takayoshi was born in Hagi, Chōshū Domain (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), the youngest son of Wada Masakage (和田 昌景), a samurai physician, and his second wife Seiko. He was later adopted into the Katsura family at age 7 and was known, thereafter, as Katsura Kogorō (桂 小五郎). He was educated at Shoka Sonjuku, the academy of Yoshida Shōin, where he adopted the philosophy of Imperial loyalism. In 1852, he went to Edo to study swordsmanship, established ties with radical samurai from Mito domain, learned artillery techniques with Egawa Tarōzaemon, and (after observing the construction of foreign ships in Nagasaki and Shimoda), returned to Chōshū to supervise the construction of the domain’s first Western-style warship.

After 1858, Takayoshi was based in Edo where he served as liaison between the domain bureaucracy and radical elements among the young, lower-echelon Chōshū samurai who supported the Sonnō jōi movement, which vowed to revere the emperor, expel foreigners, and, in the process, get rid of the Tokugawa shogunate which supported foreign incursion. He came under suspicion by the shogunate for his ties with Mito loyalists after the attempted assassination of Andō Nobumasa, and so was transferred to Kyōto. However, while in Kyōto, he was unable to prevent the 30th September 1863 coup d’état by the forces of the Aizu and Satsuma domains, who drove the Chōshū forces out of the city.

According to his personal diary, Takayoshi was at a loyalist meeting with the Ishin shishi (samurai in favor of Sonnō jōi) at the Ikedaya inn on the evening of July 8th, 1864. He claimed that they had met only to discuss how to protect Shuntaro Furutaka (a shishi leader) from the Shinsengumi (Kyoto police of the shogunate). Shinsengumi troops attacked the inn on that night, which became known as the Ikedaya incident, but Takayoshi says he left early and was not involved. Shuntaro Furutaka was captured and brutally tortured. There were rumors that Takayoshi was tipped off by his geisha lover, Ikumatsu (幾松), that the Shinsengumi were coming for him and chose not show up for the meeting at all, or that he climbed out the window of the upper floor of the inn during the attack by the Shinsengumi and escaped over the roofs. He spent the next five days in hiding under Nijō Bridge along the Kamo River, posing as a beggar. Ikumatsu brought him rice balls from the shop of the Chōshū merchant Imai Tarōemon, and later aided in his escape.

Takayoshi was involved in, but not present at, the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion on 20th August 1864: the unsuccessful attempt to capture the Emperor Kōmei by Chōshū forces at Hamaguri Gate in order to restore the Imperial household to its position of political supremacy. The Chōshū forces clashed with Aizu and Satsuma forces which led to their defense of the Imperial palace. During the attempt, the Chōshū rebels set Kyoto on fire, starting with the residence of the Takatsukasa family, and that of a Chōshū official. The rebellion resulted in casualties of about 400 of the Chōshū forces and only 60 from Aizu and Satsuma forces, with 28,000 houses being burnt down, forcing Katsura into hiding again with his geisha lover. He later used the name Niibori Matsusuke as an alias in 1865 to continue his work against the Tokugawa shogunate.

After radical elements under Takasugi Shinsaku gained control of Chōshū politics, Takayoshi was instrumental in establishing the Satchō Alliance with Saigō Takamori and Ōkubo Toshimichi through the mediation of Sakamoto Ryōma, which proved to be critical in the Boshin War and the subsequent Meiji Restoration. Following the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, Takayoshi (now using that name), claimed a major role in the establishment of the new Meiji government. As a san’yo (Imperial Advisor) he helped draft the Five Charter Oath, and initiated policies of centralization and modernization. He helped direct the Abolition of the han system (system of domains governed by daimyo). In August 1868, he had Ikumatsu adopted into a samurai family of Okabe Tomitarō, and later married her.

On 23rd December 1871, he accompanied the Iwakura Mission on its round-the-world voyage to the United States and Europe, and was especially interested in Western educational systems and politics. On his return to Japan on 13th September 1873, he became a strong advocate of the establishment of constitutional government. Realizing that Japan was not in any position to challenge the Western powers in its current state, he also returned to Japan just in time to prevent an invasion of Korea (Seikanron). Takayoshi lost his dominant position in the Meiji oligarchy to Ōkubo Toshimichi, and resigned from government in protest of the Taiwan Expedition of 1874, which he had strenuously opposed. Following the Osaka Conference of 1875, he agreed to return to the government, and became chairman of the Assembly of Prefectural Governors that the Ōsaka Conference had created. He was also responsible for the education of the young Emperor Meiji.

During the middle of Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, Takayoshi died of an illness that had been plaguing him for a long time, which consisted of a combination of some form of brain disorder and physical exhaustion, years of excessive alcohol consumption as well as an illness assumed to be tuberculosis or beriberi. He was buried at the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine, Kyoto, Japan. His widow survived him and died in 1887 at the age of 43. Kido Takayoshi was enshrined as the Shinto deity of scholarship and the martial arts at the Kido Shrine in about 1886 at Kido Park, Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. His diary reveals an intense internal conflict between his loyalty to his home domain, Chōshū, and the greater interest of the country. He wrote often of having to fight rumors at home that he had betrayed his old friends; the idea of a nation was still relatively new in Japan and so the majority of samurai cared more for securing privileges for their own domain.

Together with Saigō Takamori and Ōkubo Toshimichi, he became known as one of the Ishin-no-Sanketsu (維新の三傑), which means, roughly, “Three Great Nobles of the Restoration”. He is still a popular figure showing up in manga and anime, and also in video games.


I have mentioned Japanese yōshoku (洋食 western food) before and I gave a recipe for omurice (omelet rice) there. I’ll repeat a little bit about it for the sake of new readers. In Japanese cuisine, yōshoku originated during the Meiji Restoration. These are primarily Japanese versions of European dishes, often featuring Western names, and usually written in katakana. Jihei Ishii, author of the 1898 The Complete Japanese Cookbook (日本料理法大全), states unequivocally that: “Yōshoku is Japanese food.” To many foreigners, yōshoku may not seem like Washoku (Japanese traditional dishes), yet there are many yōshoku dishes which have themselves become traditional in the eyes of the Japanese. Some of them are even thought of as traditional comfort food because they are home cooked and bring memories of childhood.

Yōshoku began by altering Western recipes for lack of information about foreign countries’ cuisine, or adaptions to suit local tastes, but over time, yōshoku also evolved dishes that were not at all based on European foods, such as chicken rice and omurice. Elaborate sauces were largely eliminated, replaced with tomato ketchup, demi-glace sauce, and Worcester sauce. Here’s a good video on how to prepare soup curry. You will need to find Japanese curry which is not like Indian curry at all.

Aug 062018

Today is the birthday (1928) of Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola US artist, director and producer who was a leading figure in pop art in the 1960s. Today is also the feast of the Transfiguration in certain Christian sects (not all, although it is a universal feast). Few people realize that Warhol was a devout Ruthenian Catholic, so pairing the two celebrations is appropriate.

Warhol was born on August 6, 1928, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the fourth child of Ondrej Warhola (Anglicized as Andrew Warhola, Sr., 1889–1942) and Julia (née Zavacká, 1892–1972), whose first child was born in their homeland, now Slovakia, and died before their move to the U.S. His parents were Lemko (eastern Slav) emigrants from Mikó (now called Miková) in the Carpathian mountains, part of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Warhol’s father emigrated to the United States in 1914, and his mother joined him in 1921. The family was Ruthenian Catholic (aka Byzantine Catholic) and attended St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. Andy Warhol had two older brothers—Pavol (Paul), the oldest, was born before the family emigrated and Ján was born in Pittsburgh.

In third grade, Warhol developed Sydenham’s chorea (also known as St. Vitus’ Dance), a nervous system disease that causes involuntary movements of the extremities, which is believed to be a complication of scarlet fever. He became a hypochondriac, and developed a fear of hospitals and doctors. Warhol was often bedridden as a child, and spent much of the time drawing, listening to the radio, and collecting pictures of movie stars, which he later described as very important in the development of his personality, skill-set and preferences. When Warhol was 13, his father died in an accident.

Warhol graduated from Schenley High School in 1945. After graduating from high school, his intentions were to study art education at the University of Pittsburgh in the hope of becoming an art teacher, but his plans changed and he enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he studied commercial art. During his time there, Warhol joined the campus Modern Dance Club and Beaux Arts Society. He also served as art director of the student art magazine, Cano, illustrating a cover in 1948 and a full-page interior illustration in 1949. These are believed to be his first two published artworks.[18] Warhol earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design in 1949. Later that year, he moved to New York City and began a career in magazine illustration and advertising.

Warhol’s early career was dedicated to commercial and advertising art, where his first commission had been to draw shoes for Glamour magazine in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, Warhol worked as a designer for shoe manufacturer Israel Miller. Photographer John Coplans recalled that,

. . . nobody drew shoes the way Andy did. He somehow gave each shoe a temperament of its own, a sort of sly, Toulouse-Lautrec kind of sophistication, but the shape and the style came through accurately and the buckle was always in the right place. The kids in the apartment [which Andy shared in New York – note by Coplans] noticed that the vamps on Andy’s shoe drawings kept getting longer and longer but [Israel] Miller didn’t mind. Miller loved them.

Warhol’s “whimsical” ink drawings of shoe advertisements figured in some of his earliest showings at the Bodley Gallery in New York.

Warhol was an early adopter of the silk screen printmaking process as a technique for making art. He was taught silk screen printmaking techniques by Max Arthur Cohn at his graphic arts business in Manhattan. While working in the shoe industry, Warhol developed his “blotted line” technique, applying ink to paper and then blotting the ink while still wet, which was akin to a printmaking process on the most rudimentary scale. His use of tracing paper and ink allowed him to repeat the basic image and also to create endless variations on the theme, a method that prefigures his 1960s silk-screen canvas. In his book Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol writes: “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.”

Warhol began exhibiting his work during the 1950s. He held exhibitions at the Hugo Gallery and the Bodley Gallery in New York City; in California, his first West Coast gallery exhibition was on July 9, 1962, in the Ferus Gallery of Los Angeles. The exhibition marked his West Coast debut of pop art. his first New York solo pop art exhibition was hosted at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery November 6–24, 1962. The exhibit included the works Marilyn Diptych, 100 Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, and 100 Dollar Bills.

It was during the 1960s that Warhol began to make paintings of iconic American objects such as dollar bills, mushroom clouds, electric chairs, Campbell’s Soup Cans, Coca-Cola bottles, celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Troy Donahue, Muhammad Ali, and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as newspaper headlines or photographs of police dogs attacking African-American protesters during the Birmingham campaign in the civil rights movement. During these years, he founded his studio, “The Factory” and gathered about him a wide range of artists, writers, musicians, and underground celebrities. Warhol said of Coca-Cola:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a Symposium on pop art in December 1962 during which artists such as Warhol were attacked for “capitulating” to consumerism. Critics were scandalized by Warhol’s open embrace of market culture. During the 1960s, Warhol also groomed a retinue of bohemian and counterculture eccentrics upon whom he bestowed the designation “Superstars”, including Nico, Joe Dallesandro, Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling. These people all participated in the Factory films, and some—like Berlin—remained friends with Warhol until his death. Important figures in the New York underground art/cinema world, such as writer John Giorno and film-maker Jack Smith, also appear in Warhol films (many premiering at the New Andy Warhol Garrick Theatre and 55th Street Playhouse) of the 1960s, revealing Warhol’s connections to a diverse range of artistic scenes during this time. Less well known was his support and collaboration with several teenagers during this era, who achieved prominence later in life including writer David Dalton, photographer Stephen Shore and artist Bibbe Hansen (mother of pop musician Beck).

On June 3rd, 1968, radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot Warhol and Mario Amaya, art critic and curator, at Warhol’s studio. Before the shooting, Solanas had been a marginal figure in the Factory scene. She wrote the S.C.U.M. Manifesto in 1967, a separatist feminist tract that advocated the elimination of men; and appeared in the 1968 Warhol film I, a Man. Earlier on the day of the attack, Solanas had been turned away from the Factory after asking for the return of a script she had given to Warhol. The script had apparently been misplaced. Amaya received only minor injuries and was released from the hospital later the same day. Warhol was seriously wounded by the attack and barely survived: surgeons opened his chest and massaged his heart to help stimulate its movement again. He suffered physical effects for the rest of his life, including being required to wear a surgical corset. The shooting had a profound effect on Warhol’s subsequent life and art.

Solanas was arrested the day after the assault, after turning herself in to police. By way of explanation, she said that Warhol “had too much control over my life.” She was subsequently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and eventually sentenced to three years under the control of the Department of Corrections. After the shooting, the Factory scene heavily increased security, and for many the “Factory 60s” ended. Warhol wrote:

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.


Warhol was a practicing Ruthenian Catholic all of his life. He regularly volunteered at homeless shelters in New York City, particularly during the busier times of the year, and described himself as a religious person. Many of Warhol’s later works depicted religious subjects, including two series, Details of Renaissance Paintings (1984) and The Last Supper (1986). In addition, a body of religious-themed works was found posthumously in his estate. During his life, Warhol regularly attended Mass, and the priest at Warhol’s church, Saint Vincent Ferrer, said that he went there almost daily, although he was not observed taking Communion or going to Confession and sat or knelt in the pews at the back. The priest thought he was afraid of being recognized. Warhol said he was self-conscious about being seen in a Roman Rite church crossing himself “in the Orthodox way” (right to left instead of the reverse). Warhol’s brother has described him as “really religious, but he didn’t want people to know about that because it was private”. Despite the private nature of his faith, in Warhol’s eulogy John Richardson depicted it as devout: “To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing his nephew’s studies for the priesthood”

This brings us to the Transfiguration. The feast comes from the account in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). Here is Mark 9:2-4:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

The feast of the Transfiguration was known in various forms by the 9th century, and in the Western Church was made a universal feast on 6th August by Pope Callixtus III. Many denominations celebrate the Transfiguration, including quite a number of Protestants, but the dates vary. Presbyterians (as well as Methodists and Lutherans) celebrate it on the Sunday immediately preceding Lent. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox churches that follow the Gregorian calendar continue to use August 6th.

Christian theology assigns a great deal of significance to the Transfiguration, based on multiple elements of the narrative. The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment because it unequivocally identifies Jesus as more than human, and takes place on a mountain, a setting in both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles where specially chosen people meet God. Mountains act as a bridge between heaven and earth.

As a committed Ruthenian Catholic, Andy Warhol would have celebrated the Transfiguration annually, but I am not going to speculate on what he ate on that day. He did not simply champion fast food and commercial products in his art, he was a regular consumer of them as well. He wrote:

My favorite restaurant atmosphere has always been the atmosphere of the good, plain American lunchroom or even the good, plain American lunch counter. The old-style Schrafft’s and the old-style Chock Full o’Nuts are absolutely the only things in the world that I’m truly nostalgic for. The days were carefree in the 1940s and 1950s when I could go into a Chocks for my cream cheese sandwich with nuts on date-nut bread and not worry about a thing. No matter what changes or how fast, the one thing we always need is real good food so we can know what the changes are and how fast they’re coming. Progress is very important and exciting in everything but food. When you say you want an orange, you don’t want someone asking you, “An orange what?”

There’s a start for you, cream cheese with nuts on date-nut bread. He is a known to have liked chocolate in a sandwich (which I do too, as it happens, courtesy of a stay in France as a teen), and, in general, his tastes were quite ordinary and plain. He also wrote this:

When I order in a restaurant, I order everything that I don’t want, so I have a lot to play around with while everyone else eats. Then, no matter how chic the restaurant is, I insist that the waiter wrap the entire plate up like a to-go order, and after we leave the restaurant I find a little corner outside in the street to leave the plate in, because there are so many people in New York who live in the streets, with everything they own in shopping bags.

In other words, today is not a day for extravagance, but for simple, good food. The choice is yours. I’m not so sure about a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, although I used to be a big fan of their pepper pot. A ballpark hotdog will work:

When Queen Elizabeth came here and President Eisenhower bought her a hot dog I’m sure he felt confident that she couldn’t have had delivered to Buckingham Palace a better hot dog than that one he bought for her for maybe twenty cents at the ballpark. Because there is no better hot dog than a ballpark hot dog. Not for a dollar, not for ten dollars, not for a hundred thousand dollars could she get a better hot dog.

Aug 052018

On this date in 25 CE, Liu Xiu (15th January 5 BCE – 29th March 57 CE) claimed the throne as emperor of China, restoring the Han dynasty after the collapse of the short-lived Xin dynasty. Discounting the interregnum of the Xin dynasty, the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China (206 BCE–220 CE), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) is considered a golden age in Chinese history, not least because the ethnic majority in modern China think of themselves as directly descended from the Han of ancient China. This makes as much sense as modern Italians thinking that they are descendants of ancient Romans, but it is an important narrative for modern Chinese. The majority call themselves Han people, they call the language they speak, Han language, and the writing system, Han characters (although they use other terms as well).

Liu Xiu took the imperial name Guangwu, courtesy name Wenshu, and this is the name he is commonly known by. He is treated as the founder of the Later Han or Eastern Han (the restored Han Dynasty), and at the outset he ruled over parts of China only. By the suppression and conquest of regional warlords, he had consolidated the whole of China by the time of his death in 57 CE. I will talk about how Liu Xiu came to be emperor Guangwu, but, like all of Chinese political/military history, the narrative is incredibly complicated and hard to follow (even though I have simplified it a great deal).  If you like you can skip to the Han era rabbit and mushroom recipe at the end. If you want the super-super-condensed version it is: usurper replaces the old Han emperor – Liu Xiu and his brother (descendants of the old Han dynasty) plan a rebellion – rebelling factions form and disagree a lot – one faction chooses a leader, general Gengshi – Liu Xiu’s brother hates this plan, revolts, and is executed – Liu Xiu eventually defeats all comers and is installed as emperor. Here’s the somewhat longer version:

Liu Xiu was a sixth-generation descendant of emperor Jing of the Former (or Western) Han. He was the son of Liu Qin (劉欽), magistrate (i.e., head official) of Nandun county (南頓令). Liu Qin was married to the daughter of Fan Chong (樊重), and he and his wife had three sons – Liu Yan, Liu Zhong, and Liu Xiu. Liu Qin died young, and the brothers were raised by their uncle Liu Liang (劉良). Liu Yan was ambitious, and after Wang Mang usurped the Han throne in 8 CE and established the Xin dynasty, Liu Yan was constantly considering starting a rebellion to restore the Han Dynasty. Liu Xiu, by contrast, was a careful man who was content to be a farmer. However, his brother-in-law Deng Chen (鄧晨), the husband of his sister Liu Yuan (劉元), who believed in a prophecy that a man named Liu Xiu would be emperor, constantly encouraged him to be more ambitious.

In 22 CE, with virtually the entire empire rebelling against Wang Mang’s incompetent rule, Liu Yan prepared his rebellion. He planned, along with his brothers, and Li Tong (李通) and his cousin Li Yi (李軼), to kidnap the governor for Nanyang Commandery (roughly modern Nanyang, Henan) and call for the people of the commandery to join him. When the young men of their home territory of Chongling heard about the rebellion, they were all afraid to join—until they saw that Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion as well, figuring that if even a careful man like Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion, the rebellion was carefully planned.

Wang Mang

However, the news of the plan leaked out, and Li Tong and Li Yi barely escaped with their lives (but their family was slaughtered). Liu Yan changed his plan and persuaded two branches of the Lülin – the Xinshi Force (新市兵) and Pinglin Force (平林兵) to join forces with him, and they had some military success. Encouraged, Liu Yan made a frontal assault against Wancheng (宛城), the capital of Nanyang Commandery—and suffered a major loss. Liu Yan and Liu Xiu, along with their sister Liu Boji (劉伯姬), survived, but their brother Liu Zhong and sister Liu Yuan died in the battle. Liu Yan’s allies, seeing his defeat, considered leaving him, but Liu Yan was able to persuade them, along with another branch of the Lülin, the Xiajiang Force (下江兵), to join him. In 23, they had a major victory against Xin forces, killing Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of Nanyang Commandery.

By this point, many other rebel leaders had become jealous of Liu Yan’s capabilities, and while a good number of their men admired Liu Yan and wanted him to become the emperor of a newly declared Han Dynasty, they had other ideas. They found another local rebel leader, Liu Xuan, a third cousin of Liu Yan, who was claiming the title of General Gengshi (更始將軍) at the time and requested that he be made emperor. Liu Yan initially opposed this move and instead suggested that Liu Xuan carry the title “Prince of Han” first (echoing the founder of the Han dynasty, emperor Gaozu). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23 CE, Liu Xuan was proclaimed Gengshi emperor. Liu Yan became prime minister. Liu Xiu, along with many other rebel leaders, carried the title “general”.

Liu Xiu was instrumental in the key victory that sealed Wang Mang’s fate. Wang, aware that the Gengshi emperor was becoming a major threat, sent his cousin Wang Yi (王邑) and his prime minister Wang Xun (王尋) with what he considered to be overwhelming force, around 430,000 men, intending to crush the newly constituted Han regime. The Han forces were at this point in two groups—one led by Wang Feng (王鳳), Wang Chang (王常), and Liu Xiu, which, in response to the arrival of the Xin forces, withdrew to the small town of Kunyang (昆陽, in modern Ye County, Henan) and one led by Liu Yan, which was still sieging Wancheng. The rebels in Kunyang initially wanted to scatter, but Liu Xiu opposed it. Instead, he advocated that they guard Kunyang securely, while he gathered all other available troops in surrounding areas and attacked the Xin forces from the outside. After initially rejecting Liu Xiu’s idea, the Kunyang rebels eventually agreed.

Liu Xiu carried out this action, and when he returned to Kunyang, he began harassing the sieging Xin forces from the outside. Wang Yi and Wang Xun, annoyed, led 10,000 men to attack Liu Xiu and ordered the rest of their troops not to move from their siege locations. Once they engaged in battle, however, after minor losses, the other units were hesitant to assist them, and Liu Xiu killed Wang Xun in battle. Once that happened, the Han forces inside Kunyang burst out of the city and attacked the other Xin units, and the much larger Xin forces suffered a total collapse. The soldiers largely deserted and went home, unable to be gathered again. Wang Yi had to withdraw with only several thousand men back to Luoyang. This was a major blow to Xin, psychologically. From this point on, all was lost.

The very first major incident of infighting in Gengshi emperor’s regime occurred at this time, though. The Gengshi emperor was fearful of Liu Yan’s capabilities and keenly aware that many of Liu Yan’s followers were angry that he was not made emperor. Liu Ji (劉稷), was particularly critical of the Gengshi emperor, and, in consequence, the Gengshi emperor arrested Liu Ji and wanted to execute him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. The Gengshi emperor, encouraged by Li Yi (who had by that point turned against Liu Yan) and Zhu Wei (朱鮪), took this opportunity to execute Liu Yan as well. At this time, Liu Xiu was fighting on the front lines. When he heard about his brother’s death, he quickly left his army and went back to the temporary capital, Wancheng, to beg forgiveness. When Liu Yan’s followers greeted him, he only thanked them but did not speak of his feelings, but rather blamed himself and did not mention of his achievements at Kunyang. He did not dare mourn his brother. The Gengshi emperor, ashamed of what he had done, spared Liu Xiu and created him the Marquess of Wuxin (武信侯).

Around this time, Liu Xiu married his childhood sweetheart, the famed beauty Yin Lihua. (According to Hou Han Shu, while much younger, when Liu Xiu was visiting the capital Chang’an, he became impressed with the mayor of the capital (zhijinyu, 執金吾) and, already impressed by Yin’s beauty, he made the following remarks: “If I were to be an official, I want to be zhijinyu; if I were to marry, I want to marry Yin Lihua”.

Soon, Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty and its capital Chang’an fell to the Gengshi emperor’s forces, and the Gengshi emperor was acknowledged by virtually the entire empire as the emperor of the restored Han Dynasty. He initially planned to set his capital at Luoyang, and he made Liu Xiu governor of the capital region. Liu Xiu was commissioned to repair the palaces and governmental offices at Luoyang. Of all of the major Han officials following the restoration, Liu Xiu alone quickly showed his talent for organization, and his agency quickly grew to resemble its pre-Wang Mang counterpart.

In any case, the Gengshi emperor’s regime was only able to obtain nominal submission from many regions of the empire, and one of the troublesome regions was north of the Yellow River. The emperor considered dispatching a general to try to pacify the region, and his cousin Liu Ci (劉賜), who had succeeded Liu Yan as prime minister, endorsed Liu Xiu for that task. Liu Yan’s political enemies, including Li and Zhu, opposed, but after Liu Ci repeatedly endorsed Liu Xiu, the Gengshi emperor relented and, in autumn 23 CE, he sent Liu Xiu to the region north of the Yellow River. Liu Xiu was initially met with great gladness by the people north of the Yellow River. It was around this time that Deng Yu (鄧禹), joined him (later to be his prime minister); other later important figures who joined him around this time included Feng Yi (馮異) and Geng Chun (耿純). Deng, seeing that the Gengshi emperor lacked the ability to rule, persuaded Liu Xiu to keep his sights broad and consider eventual independence.

Liu Xiu would soon have a major problem on his hands, however. In the winter of  23 CE, he faced a pretender for the Han throne, a fortuneteller in Handan named Wang Lang who claimed to be actually named Liu Ziyu (劉子輿) and a son of emperor Cheng. He claimed that his mother was a singer in emperor Cheng’s service, and that Empress Zhao Feiyan had tried to kill him after his birth, but that a substitute child was killed instead. After he spread these rumors among the people, the people of Handan began to believe that he was a genuine son of emperor Cheng, and the commanderies north of the Yellow River quickly pledged allegiance to him as emperor. In spring 24 CE, Liu Xiu was forced to withdraw to the northern city of Jicheng (modern Beijing). Not long after, he faced rebellions in his immediate vicinity, and was nearly killed by rebels who pledged allegiance to Wang. He reached two commanderies in modern central Hebei that were still loyal to the Gengshi emperor—Xindu (信都, roughly modern Hengshui, Hebei), whose governor was Ren Guang (任光), and Herong, (和戎, roughly part of modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei), whose governor was Pi Tong (邳彤). Ren’s deputy Li Chong (李忠), Wan Xiu (萬脩) and Liu Zhi (劉植), who was powerful clan in the region, also joined him. Additionally, he began to make Liu Zhi persuade Liu Yang (劉楊) the Prince of Zhending, who held 100,000 troops, to join him. He entered into a political marriage with Guo Shengtong (郭聖通), the niece of Liu Yang, and combined his forces. He mobilized their forces and won some major battles against Wang’s generals.

Meanwhile, a follower of Liu Xiu, Geng Yan (耿弇), the son of the governor of Shanggu Commandery (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei), had fled back to his father’s commandery, and persuaded both his father Geng Kuang (耿況) and the governor of the neighboring Yuyang Commandery (漁陽, roughly modern Beijing), Peng Chong (彭寵), to support Liu Xiu. Geng Yan, being supported by Gen Kuang’s deputy Kou Xun (寇恂) and Jing Dan (景丹), and Peng’s deputy, Wu Han (吳漢), led the two commanderies’ cavalry and infantry forces south to join Liu Xiu. The combined forces gave Liu Xiu enough strength to make a direct assault against Handan, trapping and killing Wang Lang.

After Wang’s death, Gengshi emperor created Liu Xiu the Prince of Xiao and summoned him back to the capital (then moved to Chang’an). Liu Xiu, persuaded by Geng Yan that he should be ready to set out his own course, because the people were badly shaken by Gengshi emperor and his officials’ misrule, declined and claimed that the region still needed to be pacified.

In autumn 24 CE, Liu Xiu, still ostensibly an official under the Gengshi emperor, successfully pacified some of the larger agrarian rebel groups and merged them into his own forces. He also started replacing officials loyal to the Gengshi emperor with those loyal to himself. He consolidated his power north of the Yellow River and, as he predicted that the powerful Chimei would destroy Gengshi emperor’s government for him, he waited for that to happen, not intervening on either side as that conflict was developing. He put Kou Xun in charge of the Henei (modern northern Henan, north of the Yellow River) region and made it the base for food and manpower supplies, while commissioning Deng with an expedition force to the modern Shaanxi region, waiting for the confrontation between the Gengshi Emperor and the Chimei. In early 25 CE, Deng, on his way west, seized the modern Shanxi region and put it under Liu Xiu’s control, before crossing the Yellow River into modern Shaanxi.

At this point, territories that Liu Xiu controlled were already impressive, compared to any other regional power in an empire broken apart by civil war—but he still carried just the title Prince of Xiao (which the Gengshi emperor had bestowed on him) and still ostensibly was controlling those territories as the Gengshi emperor’s deputy, even as he was already engaging militarily against some generals (e.g. Xie Gong – 謝躬) loyal to Gengshi emperor (During this incident, Liu Xiu succeeded to persuade Ma Wu (馬武), who was the deputy of Xie Gong, to join him.). In summer 25, after repeated urging by his followers, he finally claimed the title of emperor and the right to succeed to the Han throne—as emperor Guangwu.

The story so far is complicated enough, and if you made it this far I congratulate you. What follows is yet more complicated and Byzantine. Guangwu spent the rest of his reign consolidating the various warring factions within China and also staving off external threats, especially from Vietnam. He also had to set about land reform and the imposition of a legal system. All told, he was extremely competent as a general and as an administrator, and was legendary for his fairness and mercy. Chinese emperors have had a long history of being jealous, paranoid, and capricious, but Guangwu was none of these things. He set in place a new Han dynasty that lasted for 200 years.

The Han era is generally thought of as a golden age. As it happens, we have a few (very rudimentary) recipe ideas from the period, and a considerable amount of information on cookware, serviceware, and ingredients from meticulous archeological digs of royal tombs that were begun in the 1970s. Nobles were frequently buried with food and cookware, and their skeletons contain remnants of food. There are also many tomb paintings depicting eating scenes. The ingredient list (including spices) looks very much like a modern one, but we cannot know anything about cooking methods. Therefore, food historians have conjectured how to make the dishes using modern techniques (which are certainly venerable and widespread). I’ve chosen a stir-fried rabbit and mushrooms recipe, which I have had to edit and add to a great deal to make sense of. The recipe does not indicate the kind of mushrooms, so use any Chinese mushroom you fancy. Rehydrated dried black mushrooms will work fine. I assume that then, as now, cooks used the mushrooms that were seasonally available.

Stir-Fried Rabbit and Mushrooms


1 lb rabbit meat, cut in small pieces
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 tbsp ginger juice
2 egg whites
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 large black mushrooms, sliced
½ cup chicken broth
2 tbsp cornstarch


Beat together the salt, rice wine, shallot, ginger juice, egg whites, cornstarch, and sesame oil in a large bowl until they are well combined.  Add the rabbit meat and stir so that all the pieces are fully covered on all sides. Leave for 10 minutes.

Drain the meat and reserve the liquid.

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. Stir in the rabbit mixture, and cooking, stirring constantly, for one minute. Then add mushroom slices stir another minute.

Mix the reserved marinade broth with the cornstarch, and add it to the rabbit mixture. Cook and stir for one minute, then put the finished dish in a pre-heated bowl, and serve with rice.

Aug 042018

Today’s date in 1693 is the date traditionally ascribed to Dom Pérignon’s invention of champagne.  This has nothing to do with the actual development of champagne – of course – but it’s as good an excuse as any to post about bubbly.

The Romans were the first known inhabitants to plant vineyards in the Champagne region. The name Champagne comes from the Latin campania and referred to the similarities between the rolling hills of the province and the Italian countryside of Campania located south of Rome. The area was divided into the Champagne pouilleuse—the chalky, barren plains east of Reims—and Champagne viticole, the forested hillside region known as the Montagne de Reims between Reims and the Marne river where the vines were planted. While vineyards were undoubtedly planted earlier, the first recorded vineyard belonged to St. Remi in the 5th century. For most of the region’s early history, the wines from Champagne were not known as “Champagne” or even vin de Champagne. Rather they were known as vins de Reims and vins de la rivère in reference to the Marne river which provided a vital trade route via the Seine with Paris. Champagne’s location at the crossroads of two major trading routes, one east–west between Paris and the Rhineland and the other north–south between Flanders and Switzerland, brought the region and its wines much prosperity and notoriety but also played a pivotal role in Champagne being the site of countless battles and occupations.

In 987, Hugh Capet was crowned King of France at the cathedral Reims. At the coronation banquet, the local wines of the regions were served. The city became known as the spiritual capital of France and for the next eight centuries, monarchs followed Capet’s lead and held their coronations in Reims. The association of the region with royalty did a great deal to spread the reputation of the region’s wines. By the 16th century, the village of Ay, located south of Reims, was widely acclaimed for the quality of its wine with King Francis I proclaiming himself to be the “Roi d’ Aÿ et de Gonesse”—king of the lands where the country’s greatest wines and flour were produced. Such was the reputation of Ay’s wines that they were known as the vins de France, their quality representing the whole of the country rather than just a region. Eventually the name of Ay became a shorthand reference to refer to all the wines of the Champagne region. (Much like Bordeaux or Beaune are used today to refer to the wines of the Gironde and Burgundy regions, respectively.)

During the Middle Ages, the wines of the Champagne region were various shades of light red to pale pink as a strong rivalry developed between the Champenois and their Burgundian neighbors to the south. The trade route that Flemish merchants used to get to the Burgundy region went right through Reims and the Champenois were eager to entice their business with a “cheaper” alternative. The climate of the region made it difficult to produce red wines with the richness and color of the Burgundian wines, even though the Champenois tried to “improve” their wines by blending in elderberries. Eventually their attention switched to producing white wines in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Burgundians. However, the white wine produced from white grapes were found to have a dull flavor and quickly spoiled. The most sought after wines were white wines made from red wine grapes, such as Pinot noir which had more flavor, aromatics, and longevity. Throughout the 16th and early 17th century, Champenois winemakers tried to produce the best white wine they could from red wines grapes though the results were often not white at all but ranged from greyish color to a shade of pink known as oeil de perdrix (partridge eye). It wasn’t until Dom Pierre Pérignon (a Benedictine monk) from the Abbey of Hautvillers perfected his wine-making techniques that the vintners of Champagne could make a truly white wine from red grapes (it has a lot to do with how you treat the skins). Pérignon actually spent the bulk of his experiments trying to get rid of the bubbles in his white wine !!!

After being destroyed during the French Wars of Religion, the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers was rebuilt and replanted its vineyards. By 1661, the Abbey had 25 acres (10 ha) of vineyards, but was also receiving tithes in the form of grapes from nearby villages, including the highly regarded vineyards of Ay and Avenay-Val-d’Or. The abbot commissioned the construction of a cellar and sought to hire a treasurer and cellar master to help develop the Abbey’s growing winemaking operation. In 1668, Pierre Pérignon was appointed to the position. Pérignon, who was described as a perfectionist, worked tirelessly to improve the viticultural practices of Abbey’s vineyards and the quality of the wines. He was a strong advocate of using only Pinot noir grapes which he believed had the best flavor and potential quality. At the time, the vineyards of the region were planted with a variety of grapes including Pinot noir, Chasselas, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Pinot Meunier and perhaps Chardonnay. Most important, in Dom Pérignon’s mind, was that red grapes like Pinot noir were less likely to become “volatile” in the spring and produce bubbles as the white grapes sometimes did. The presence of bubbles in his wines was considered a fault and Dom Pérignon set out to develop precise techniques to limit the likelihood of this fault occurring.

Dom Pérignon was a staunch advocate of aggressive pruning, dictating that vines should grow no higher than 1 meter (3 ft) and produce small yields. Harvesting was to be done early in the morning, when it was very cool, and every care was to be taken to keep the grapes intact. Grapes that were bruised or broken were rejected. Mules and donkeys were favored over horses to transport the grapes to the press houses since they were less likely to get excited and possibly damage the grapes. Dom Pérignon desired the grapes to be pressed as quickly and efficiently as possible to minimize the possibility of the grape skins leaching into the juice. A distinction was made between the different levels of pressings. The first press, done completely by the weight of the grapes on top of each other, produced the highest quality wine, known as the vin de goutte. The second and third pressings, done with weight being applied, produced wine of good but not exceptional quality. The fourth and fifth pressings, the vin de taille and vins de pressoir, were of darker colors and therefore were not used at all. In addition to adding the pinkish/grey coloring, Dom Pérignon knew that the skins imparted different flavoring and coarser textures than he did not want in his high quality wines. His emphasis on limiting skin contact made it possible for the Abbey of Hautvillers to produce truly white wine from red wine grapes.

While banished to England in 1661, the Marquis de Saint-Évremond did much to popularize Champagne wines in London society. While Saint-Évremond preferred his Champagne to be still, the sparkling version of Champagne became popular with the English also. As a wealthy and powerful nation with limited winemaking resources, England had a marked influence on the development of sparkling Champagne. At parties and banquets, Saint-Évremond promoted the wines of the Champagne region. Soon some of the most powerful and fashionable men of London, such as the Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Buckingham as well as the Earl of Arlington were making regular orders of cases of Champagne. The wine was non-sparkling, or at least it was intended to be. Wine was often transported to England in wooden wine barrels and merchant houses would then bottle the wine for sale. During the 17th century, English glassmakers used coal-fueled ovens and produced stronger, more durable glass bottles than wood-fired French glass. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers, once used by the Romans but forgotten for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. During the cold winters of the Champagne region, temperatures would drop so low that the fermentation process was prematurely halted, leaving some residual sugar and dormant yeast. When the wine was shipped to and bottled in England, the fermentation process would restart when the weather warmed and the cork-stoppered wine would begin to build pressure from carbon dioxide gas. When the wine was opened, it would be bubbly.

The English were among the first who saw the tendency of Champagne to sparkle as a desirable trait, and tried to understand why it bubbled. In 1662, the English scientist Christopher Merret presented a paper detailing how the presence of sugar in a wine led to it eventually sparkling, and that nearly any wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar to a wine before bottling it. This is one of the first known accounts of understanding the process of sparkling wine and suggests that British merchants were producing “sparkling Champagne” even before the French Champenois were deliberately making it. Concurrently, advances in glass manufacture in Britain, by George Ravenscroft and others, allowed more robust wine bottles to be made which could contain the effervescence without exploding. The popularity of sparkling Champagne steadily grew. In 1663, the British poet Samuel Butler wrote the first English reference to “brisk” (i.e. frothy) Champagne in his poem Hudibras. The 1698 George Farquhar play Love and a Bottle featured one of the characters marveling at the steady stream of bubbles in a glass of a Champagne wine. As the popularity of sparkling Champagne grew in London, other European courts began to discover the bubbly curiosity-including the French who had previously despised the bubbles as a wine fault.

Champagne and caviar tend to be the pairing most associated with luxury, but if you have traveled in Russia at all, with a heavy purse, you will know the delights of well chilled vodka and caviar. As an Oxford man I was much more inclined towards champagne paired with perfectly ripe strawberries on the river or at a commemoration ball, than with caviar because the tastes seem to me to belong better together. Just as often, I drank champagne on its own – usually as a celebration (such as at the end of finals). Here’s a recipe for chicken in champagne which I would never have made when I drank alcohol, but now I can countenance it, although I’d be unlikely to want to spend the kind of money it takes to buy the champagne I used to drink, Moët & Chandon brut, for cooking.  You must use good wines for cooking, but not that good. The rule is: do not cook with a wine you would not drink.

Chicken in Champagne


1 3lb chicken, cut in serving pieces
6 tbsp butter
2 tbsp finely chopped onion
salt and pepper
1 tbsp flour
1 bottle champagne
½ pint whipping cream
4 egg yolks
2 tbsp single cream

Heat the butter over low heat in a skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in a single layer. When the butter has melted, place the chicken and onions in the skillet with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer (not sauté) for several minutes, turning the chicken pieces several times. Do not let the chicken take on color. Cover and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.

Drink half the bottle of champagne while the chicken is cooking.

Sprinkle the flour over the chicken pieces, Cover and simmer for a further 15 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.

Remove the chicken with tongs or a slotted spoon, place in a covered oven-proof container and keep warm in a low oven.

Reduce the pan juices over a high flame until they are a quarter of the volume. Add the whipping cream and continue to cook, stirring regularly, until reduced by half.

Beat the egg yolks with the single cream. Add a few tablespoons of the hot sauce and whisk vigorously. Then pour the egg mixture into the sauce. Simmer over a very low flame until thick and smooth. Do not allow the sauce to boil.

Plate up the chicken pieces and pour the hot sauce over them (through a strainer).

Serve very hot.

Serves 4.

Aug 022018

On this date in 1868 as part of the Meiji reforms in Japan, the strict social codes enacted during the Edo period, also called Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868 CE), were officially abolished. The Edo social regulations were intended to promote stability, and for some time they did. But careful examination of the system indicates that it was not quite as rigid as portrayed in media and popular thinking, and it contained the seeds of its own destruction in the face of internal and external pressures.

The Tokugawa shogunate intentionally created a social order called the Four Divisions of Society (shinōkōshō), that was meant to stabilize a country torn for centuries by warfare. The hereditary nobility and emperor were nominally at the top of Japanese society, but they were figureheads only, and were not included in the actual social structure that the shoguns enforced (except as puppets). The real social structure was composed of samurai (侍 shi), farming peasants (農 nō), artisans (工 kō) and merchants (商 shō). Samurai were at the top of society, acting as moral examples for others to follow. The system reinforced and justified their ruling status. Peasants came second because they were food producers, and, therefore, produced wealth, (in the basic terms of Wealth of Nations). Artisans came third because they produced wealth, but their products were considered nonessential (as opposed to food). Merchants were at the bottom of the social order because they generated wealth without producing any goods. The classes were not arranged according to access to wealth or capital – some samurai were poor, and some peasants were rich – but according to what Japanese philosophers described as their relative “moral purity.”

In actuality, shinōkōshō does not accurately describe all of Tokugawa society. Buddhist and Shinto priests, court nobles (kuge), and outcast classes including eta and hinin, were not included in this description of the hierarchy. The eta and hinin were people whose work broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people .

Also, shinōkōshō is a highly idealized and generalized description. In some cases, a poor samurai could be little better off than a peasant and the lines between the classes could blur, especially between artisans and merchants in urban areas. Still, the theory provided grounds for restricting privileges and responsibilities to different classes and it gave a sense of order to society. In practice, rigidified social relationships helped create the political stability that defined the Edo period, and was also the cause of its demise.


Samurai traditionally functioned as the warrior class in Japan; they constituted about 7–8% of the population. The other classes were prohibited from possessing long swords such as the tachi or katana. Carrying both a long and a short sword became the symbol of the samurai class. During the feudal period, samurai were warriors that fought for a lord in a feudal relationship. The Edo period, however, was largely free from both external threats and internal conflicts. Instead, the samurai maintained their fighting skills more as an art than in order to fight. Samurai were paid a stipend from their lord, and, samurai could not own land, which would have given them income independent from their duty. Samurai generally lived around their daimyō’s castle, creating a thriving town or city environment around the middle of a domain.

There were social stratifications within the samurai class. Upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyō and could hold his most trusted positions. Some achieved a level of wealth that allowed them to retain their own samurai vassals. Mid-level samurai held military and bureaucratic positions and had some interactions with their daimyō if needed. Low-level samurai could be paid as little as a subsistence wage and worked as guards, messengers, and clerks. Positions within the class were largely hereditary, and talented samurai could not rise more than a few social steps above their positions at birth. Outside the traditional samurai–lord relationship were the rōnin, or masterless samurai, who were generally accorded very low levels of respect, had no income, and often became gamblers, bandits, or the like.

Western perceptions of the samurai class are either anachronistic or misleading. Depictions of the samurai in media, such as The Last Samurai, tend to miss the point. Former samurai who refused to change their ways under the Meiji Restoration were not just attempting to preserve traditional culture; they were also trying to maintain their heredity social status in a changing world – a world based more on meritocracy than on inherited positions. It is also misleading to project the samurai as warriors skilled in traditional Japanese martial arts only. Their traditional martial arts skills were largely ceremonial. When they fought towards the end of the Edo period, they frequently used rifles and other Western weaponry.


Life for rural peasants was focused on their villages. Peasants rarely moved beyond their villages, and journeys and pilgrimages required a permit. However, young peasants occasionally sought seasonal employment outside of their village. Social bonding was critical to the survival of the whole village and was constantly reinforced through patterns of kinship, formal customs, and seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective; there were strong pressures to conform and no room to deviate from custom. Individuals had no social or legal standing; the family was the smallest social unit. Though there were conflicts, they were seen as disruptive to the village and order and were to be limited as much as possible. Villagers were highly suspicious of outsiders

The peasant class could own land, but the daimyō had rights to tax this land. Peasants worked to produce enough food for themselves and still meet the tax burden. Most farming during this time was centered on families living on their own land, in contrast to the plantation or hacienda model (where peasants did not own the land). Peasants could amass relatively large amounts of wealth but nonetheless remained peasants. Wealthier families and those that held their own land and paid taxes were held in much higher regard and had more political influence in village matters. However, the survival of the village depended on every household cooperating to meet the tax burden and overcome natural disasters such as famines. During the reign of the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo and then wait for him to give some back as charity.

Merchants and artisans

By 1800, as much as 10% of the population of Japan may have lived in large towns and cities, one of the highest levels in the world at the time. The daimyōs and their samurai did not produce any goods themselves, but they used the tax surplus from the land to pay for their consumption. Their needs were met by artisans, who moved to be around the castles, and merchants, who traded local and regional goods. Each class in the city was restricted to living in its own quarter.

Merchants grew increasingly powerful during this period. Wealthy merchant houses arose to organize distributors and hold legal monopolies. As their wealth grew, merchants wanted to consume and display their wealth in the same manner as the samurai, but laws prevented them from doing so overtly. Still, their consumption combined with that of the samurai served to reinforce the growth of the merchant and artisan classes.

The foundation of this period was its stable social order. However, as wealth became increasingly concentrated outside of the samurai class, social conflict grew. The fixed stipends on which samurai lived did not increase despite the rising cost of commodities and the increasingly burdensome cost of proper social etiquette so many samurai became in debt to wealthy merchant families. The wealthy merchants, in turn, were restricted from showing their wealth for fear of violating the laws that restricted privileges to the samurai class. That created deepening resentment but also increasing interdependence between the two classes. Some scholars began to question the Confucian beliefs that provided the foundation of society.

Changes in rural areas were also creating conflict. New technology increased productivity and allowed some families to produce a surplus of food that could be used to support ventures beyond farming. Some peasants also became indebted to their wealthier neighbors, and more families lost ownership of their land. This sparked resentment that sometimes erupted in violence towards landlords and village elite. The challenges laid the foundation for the changes that would follow during the Meiji period.

I have discussed the cooking of the Edo Period several times before. When foreigners think of “Japanese cuisine” they typically think of Edo Period dishes such as sushi and sashimi. There’s a lot more to Edo Period cooking than sushi and sashimi, and a great deal more to Japanese cooking than Edo Period recipes. But this post focuses on Edo Period culture, so a traditional recipe is in order.

Here is a video on how to prepare hiyayakko, a perfect dish for hot summer days, and extremely easy to prepare. It is perfectly in keeping with dishes served to all classes in the Edo Period. I am giving you a video out of sheer laziness. The dish is simply tofu cubes topped with grated fresh ginger, sliced green onion, and dried bonito flakes with a little soy sauce splashed on.

Aug 012018

Claudius, Roman emperor, was born on this date in 10 BCE at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France). He was the first (and for a long time, only) Roman emperor to have been born outside Italy. He had two older siblings, Germanicus and Livilla. His mother, Antonia, may have had two other children who died young. His maternal grandparents were Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, Augustus’ sister, and he was therefore the great-great grandnephew of Gaius Julius Caesar. His paternal grandparents were Livia, Augustus’ third wife, and Tiberius Claudius Nero. During his reign, Claudius revived the rumor that his father Drusus was actually the illegitimate son of Augustus, to give the appearance that Augustus was Claudius’ paternal grandfather.

In 9 BCE, his father Drusus unexpectedly died on campaign in Germania, possibly from illness. Claudius was then left to be raised by his mother, who never remarried. When Claudius’ disabilities became evident — he spoke with a pronounced lisp, drooled, and walked with a limp — the relationship with his family turned sour. Antonia referred to him as a monster, and used him as a standard for stupidity. She seems to have passed her son off to his grandmother Livia for a number of years. Livia was a little kinder, but nevertheless often sent him short, angry letters of reproof. He was put under the care of a “former mule-driver” to keep him disciplined, under the logic that his condition was due to laziness and a lack of will-power. However, by the time he reached his teenage years his symptoms apparently waned and his family took some notice of his scholarly interests.

In 7 CE, Livy was hired to tutor him in history, with the assistance of Sulpicius Flavus. He spent most of his time with the latter and the philosopher Athenodorus. Augustus, according to a letter, was surprised at the clarity of Claudius’ oratory. Expectations about his future began to increase. His work as a budding historian damaged his prospects for advancement in public life. According to Vincent Scramuzza and others, Claudius began work on a history of the Civil Wars that was either too truthful or too critical of Octavian—then reigning as Augustus Caesar. In either case, it was far too early for such an account, and may have only served to remind Augustus that Claudius was Antony’s descendant. His mother and grandmother quickly put a stop to it, and this may have convinced them that Claudius was not fit for public office. He could not be trusted to toe the existing party line.

When he returned to the narrative later in life, Claudius skipped over the wars of the second triumvirate altogether. But the damage was done, and his family pushed him into the background. When the Arch of Pavia was erected to honor the Imperial clan in 8 BCE, Claudius’ name (now Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus after his elevation to paterfamilias of Claudii Nerones on the adoption of his brother) was inscribed on the edge—past the deceased princes, Gaius and Lucius, and Germanicus’ children. There is some speculation that the inscription was added by Claudius himself decades later, and that he originally did not appear at all.

When Augustus died in 14 CE, Claudius — then 23 — appealed to his uncle Tiberius to allow him to begin the cursus honorum. Tiberius, the new Emperor, responded by granting Claudius consular ornaments. Claudius requested office once more and was snubbed. Since the new Emperor was no more generous than the old, Claudius gave up hope of public office and retired to a scholarly, private life. Despite the disdain of the Imperial family, it seems that from very early on the general public respected Claudius. At Augustus’ death, the equites (knights), chose Claudius to head their delegation. When his house burned down, the Senate demanded it be rebuilt at public expense. They also requested that Claudius be allowed to debate in the Senate. Tiberius turned down both motions, but the sentiment remained.

During the period immediately after the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus, Claudius was pushed by some factions as a potential heir. This again suggests the political nature of his exclusion from public life rather than because of infirmities. However, as this was also the period during which the power and terror of the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, was at its peak, Claudius chose to downplay this possibility.

After the death of Tiberius, the new emperor Caligula (the son of Claudius’ brother Germanicus) recognized Claudius to be of some use. He appointed Claudius his co-consul in 37 in order to emphasize the memory of Caligula’s deceased father Germanicus. Despite this, Caligula relentlessly tormented his uncle: playing practical jokes, charging him enormous sums of money, humiliating him before the Senate, and the like. According to Cassius Dio, Claudius became very sickly and thin by the end of Caligula’s reign, possibly due to stress. Claudius himself claimed that he exaggerated his infirmities when Caligula was emperor as a form of self defense. If he were thought a bumbling idiot, he was less likely to be assassinated. Robert Graves emphasizes this notion in I, Claudius.

On 24th January 41, Caligula was assassinated in a broad-based conspiracy involving the Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea and several senators. There is no evidence that Claudius had a direct hand in the assassination, although it has been argued that he knew about the plot — particularly since he left the scene of the crime shortly before his nephew was murdered. However, after the deaths of Caligula’s wife and daughter, it became apparent that Cassius intended to go beyond the terms of the conspiracy and wipe out the Imperial family.

In the chaos following the murder, Claudius witnessed the German guard cut down several uninvolved noblemen, including many of his friends. He fled to the palace to hide. According to tradition, a Praetorian named Gratus found him hiding behind a curtain and suddenly declared him princeps. A section of the guard may have planned in advance to seek out Claudius, perhaps with his approval. They reassured him that they were not one of the battalions looking for revenge. He was spirited away to the Praetorian camp and put under their protection.

The Senate quickly met and began debating a change of government, but this eventually devolved into an argument over which of them would be the new princeps. When they heard of the Praetorians’ claim, they demanded that Claudius be delivered to them for approval, but he refused, sensing the danger that would come with complying. Some historians, particularly Josephus, claim that Claudius was directed in his actions by the Judaean king, Herod Agrippa. However, an earlier version of events, also by Josephus, downplays Herod’s role so it remains uncertain. Eventually the Senate was forced to give in and, in return, Claudius pardoned nearly all the assassins. At this point I will gloss over Claudius’ actions as emperor, and, instead, focus on his personal life, leading to my (short) treatise on mushrooms.

Claudius married four times, after two failed betrothals. The first betrothal was to his distant cousin Aemilia Lepida, but was broken for political reasons. The second was to Livia Medullina, which ended with Medullina’s sudden death on their wedding day.

His first wife, Plautia Urgulanill,a was the granddaughter of Livia’s confidant Urgulania. During their marriage she gave birth to a son, Claudius Drusus. Drusus died of asphyxiation in his early teens, shortly after becoming engaged to Junilla, the daughter of Sejanus. Claudius later divorced Urgulanilla for adultery and on suspicion of murdering her sister-in-law Apronia. When Urgulanilla gave birth after the divorce, Claudius repudiated the baby girl, Claudia, since the father was allegedly one of his own freedmen. This action made him later the target of criticism by his enemies.

Soon after (possibly in 28), Claudius married Aelia Paetina, a relative of Sejanus, if not Sejanus’s adopted sister. During their marriage, Claudius and Paetina had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. He later divorced her after the marriage became a political liability, although some historians suggest it may have been due to emotional and mental abuse by Paetina.


Some years after divorcing Aelia Paetina, in 38 or early 39, Claudius married Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed and closely allied with Caligula’s circle. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, first named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’ accession. This marriage ended badly. Ancient historians allege that Messalina was a sex addict who was regularly unfaithful to Claudius — Tacitus states she went so far as to compete with a prostitute to see who could have the most sexual partners in a night — and manipulated his policies in order to amass wealth. In 48, Messalina married her lover Gaius Silius in a public ceremony while Claudius was at Ostia.

Sources disagree as to whether or not she divorced Claudius first, and whether the intention was to usurp the throne. Scramuzza, in his biography, suggests that Silius may have convinced Messalina that Claudius was doomed, and the union was her only hope of retaining rank and protecting her children. Tacitus suggests that Claudius’s ongoing term as Censor may have prevented him from noticing the affair before it reached such a critical point. Whatever the case, the result was the execution of Silius, Messalina, and most of her circle.

Agripinna crowning Nero

Ancient sources say that his freedmen put forward three candidates to be Claudius’ fourth wife, Caligula’s third wife Lollia Paulina, Claudius’s divorced second wife Aelia Paetina and Claudius’ niece Agrippina the Younger. According to Suetonius, Agrippina won out through her feminine charm. The truth is probably more political. The attempted coup d’état by Silius and Messalina had probably made Claudius realize the weakness of his position as a member of the Claudian but not the Julian family. This weakness was compounded by the fact that he did not yet have an obvious adult heir, Britannicus being just a boy.

Agrippina was one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus, and her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Emperor Nero) was one of the last males of the Imperial family. Coup attempts could rally around the pair and Agrippina was already showing such ambition. It has been suggested that the Senate may have pushed for the marriage, to end the feud between the Julian and Claudian branches. This feud dated back to Agrippina’s mother’s actions against Tiberius after the death of her husband Germanicus (Claudius’s brother), actions which Tiberius had gladly punished. In any case, Claudius accepted Agrippina and later adopted the newly mature Nero as his son.

Nero was married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, made joint heir with the underage Britannicus, and promoted. Augustus had similarly named his grandson Postumus Agrippa and his stepson Tiberius as joint heirs, and Tiberius had named Caligula joint heir with his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. Adoption of adults or near adults was an old tradition in Rome, when a suitable natural adult heir was unavailable as was the case during Britannicus’ minority. Claudius may have previously looked to adopt one of his sons-in-law to protect his own reign.

Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ disabilities in relatively good detail. His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well. He showed no physical deformity, however, and, as Suetonius notes, when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure with dignitas. When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this condition improved upon his accession to the throne. Claudius himself claimed that he had exaggerated his ailments to save his life.

As a person, ancient historians described Claudius as generous and lowbrow, a man who sometimes lunched with the plebeians. They also paint him as bloodthirsty and cruel, overly fond of gladiatorial combat and executions, and very quick to anger. Claudius himself acknowledged the latter trait, and apologized publicly for his temper. According to the ancient historians he was also overly trusting, and easily manipulated by his wives and freedmen. But at the same time they portray him as paranoid and apathetic, dull and easily confused.

The general consensus (not universal) of ancient historians was that Claudius was murdered by poison – possibly contained in mushrooms  – and died in the early hours of 13th October 54. Nearly all of them implicate his final wife, Agrippina, as the instigator. Agrippina and Claudius had become more combative in the months leading up to his death. This carried on to the point where Claudius openly lamented his bad wives, and began to comment on Britannicus’ approaching manhood with an eye towards restoring his status within the imperial family. Agrippina had motive in ensuring the succession of Nero before Britannicus could gain power.

Some ancient historians accuse either his taster Halotus, his doctor Xenophon, or the infamous poisoner Locusta of being the administrator of the fatal substance. Some say he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at dinner, and some have him recovering only to be poisoned again. Among contemporary sources, Seneca the Younger ascribed the emperor’s death to natural causes, while Josephus only spoke only of rumors on his poisoning. Some modern historians have cast doubt on whether Claudius was murdered or merely succumbed to illness or old age. The near universality of the accusations in ancient texts may or may not be indicative of the truth. It is easy, and beguiling, to attribute a “convenient” early death to murder – the stuff of conspiracy theories to this day.

The fact that poisoned mushrooms are often cited as the culprit leads me to discuss mushrooms. I don’t advocate eating poisoned mushrooms, of course, and you should be extremely cautious in picking wild mushrooms. When I was an active mushroom hunter in the woods of New York State, I once read that all true puffballs are edible. Good to know. They were plentiful near where I lived. But there is a catch. What is a “true” puffball? Some deadly amanitas mimic puffballs when they are small. You have to cut your specimen open to see whether it is solid throughout, or whether you can discern a cap developing inside. The puffballs I collected were not tasty anyway – they were like bland tofu (if you can imagine something blander than tofu).

When I was a boy in South Australia, mushrooms were not typically available in markets, but you could often find them (in fairy rings) in old pastures after heavy rain. My sister and I used to walk across a pasture to get to our sweet shop (known in our family as the egg lady’s), and once in a while we would find mushrooms to pick and take home. They were, perhaps, Agaricus arvensis, commonly known as the horse mushroom, based on what I remember of them. When we moved to England, commercially grown white mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) were about all you could get. They satisfied me well enough until I stumbled on other species. Here I have to reign in my enthusiasm.

In recent years a cornucopia of mushrooms has flooded the US and the UK, many from Asia. Italy has long been good at diversifying mushrooms for sale, but China is the king – bar none. China produces 65% of the world’s mushrooms, and Italy comes in second at a paltry 10%. Runners-up (i.e. all the rest), hover in the 1% and below bracket, although the US comes in at a respectable 5%. It’s not too difficult to find criminis and portobellos (actually the mature version of Agaricus bisporus), and increasingly you can find Asian varieties such as oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms, shiitakes and enokitakes – all commercially produced. When I lived in Kunming, in Yunnan province in China, I was in mushroom heaven. The city was surrounded by wooded highlands where 100s of wild mushroom species could be harvested, and locals came to the city all the time, selling their treasures on mats on the street. There was also a mushroom district in the city where there were dozens of restaurants where you could select whatever mushrooms you wanted from immense variety and have them made into a hotpot at your table.  Somewhat warily – because every year someone gets poisoned by wild mushrooms – I bought mushrooms on the street and typically stir fried them with eggs.

In Asia, dried mushrooms are much more expensive than fresh ones, and are sought after because of their intensity of flavor. When cooking stir fries or other quick dishes, I use fresh mushrooms, but for soups and stews I frequently use dried. Here’s a list of my favorite mushrooms:


Morchella, the true morels, is a genus of edible sac fungi. For centuries they resisted cultivation which meant that to cook with them you had to hunt in suitable locations and hope for the best. One of their particularly annoying growing habits is that they rarely grow in the same place twice. Since the 1980s, when extensive analysis of their growth cycle was undertaken, some morels can now by grown commercially, but wild ones are still best. The ecology of Morchella species is still not well understood. Many species appear to form symbiotic or endophytic relationships with trees, while others appear to act as saprotrophs (getting nutrients from decaying materials. Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta and related species) are more commonly found under deciduous trees rather than conifers, while black morels (Morchella elata and related species) are mostly found in coniferous forests, disturbed ground and recently burned areas. Because of their special taste I usually cook morels by themselves in a small amount of butter, or I pair them with eggs: scrambled or in an omelet.


Boletus is a genus of mushrooms comprising over 100 species. Porcini (Boletus edulis) are one branch, and are commonly available in Europe and North America. Quite often, when I want to use mushrooms in a soup or stew I will use porcini if they are available. They are expensive (especially dried), but they have an incomparably rich flavor that adds greatly to sauces. Boletus auripes was quite common in woodlands near my house in New York, and I sometimes found really big ones. They grilled really nicely.


I have never found chanterelles in the wild, but when I lived in the south of Italy 12 years ago, I could get them once in a while at the local market. I most often sautéed them in generous amounts of butter and served them with pasta (no cheese). They also make a great mushroom risotto. Their flavor compounds are complex, some water soluble, some fat soluble, so a sauté in butter with the rice followed by gentle poaching in a light stock to make the risotto makes a delicate and delightful creamy sauce.


These classic Japanese mushrooms have become enormously popular and widely available in recent years. Nowadays you can buy spore-impregnated logs and grow them yourself. I have done this although the results were not any different from store-bought. Shiitakes make up 25% of all mushroom cultivation worldwide. They have been cultivated in Japan since at least the 13th century, and are available year round in most Asian countries at reasonable prices. I pretty much always have some on hand here in Cambodia, and I use them in all the ways that I used white button mushrooms once upon a time – soups, stews, stir fries, omelets, etc.

Brown Beech Mushroom

These mushrooms have small caps and long fat stems growing in clusters. They are widely available in Asian markets, and I have them on hand most days. I made some today – plain sautéed – with a pork chop. I use them often in Asian soups, and also in curries. Their taste is more delicate than shiitakes but robust enough to handle long, slow cooking.


I first came across hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) in a supermarket in New York. It was some fluke, I imagine, but I had to buy it just to see what it was like. It is native to both Asia and North America, but it is much better known in Japanese and Chinese cuisine than American. It has dense, meaty fronds that grow in clusters. In Japan it is called maitake (by now you should have figured out that in Japanese /-take/ = mushroom), and it is known as “king of mushrooms.” I like to cook them the way I cook enokitake, that is, wrapped in foil with a knob of butter and baked. They also work well in soups where they do not have a lot of competing flavors, such as noodle soups.

In Asia I am never without mushrooms, and I use them almost every day. When I see a special one in a market I pounce – unless I have to get a bank loan to pay for one serving.

Jul 292018

Today is one of the possible dates (in the Gregorian calendar) of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE by the neo-Babylonian army under the command of Nebuchadnezzar II. The date is set in the Jewish calendar as Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) but we have to be a little careful about ascribing this date (in the Gregorian calendar) as the actual historical date of the event. As with all dates in the Jewish calendar, the day begins and ends at sundown, and it moves about the Gregorian calendar. Whether today is the actual anniversary of the destruction of the Temple depends on the answers to two key questions: (1) Did the destruction actually take place on Tisha B’Av? (2) Did the destruction happen in 587 BCE? There is no dispute among historians that the destruction occurred, and was followed by a mass deportation of the residents of Judah to Babylon, known as the Exile or the Babylonian Captivity. The precise details are what are under dispute. The year could have been 587 or 586; scholars disagree on this point. Knowing the exact year is important for placing Tisha B’Av on the right date in the Gregorian calendar because it changes from year to year. They also disagree on whether the destruction occurred on Tisha B’Av or whether this has become a fixed tradition not rooted in fact. Let’s leave those disagreements aside for now, and claim today as the anniversary. I want to talk about the Exile anyway. Spoiler alert: If your faith leads you to believe in a literal interpretation of history in the Hebrew Bible, you are not going to like what I have to say.

How you determine the timing and significance of the destruction of the Temple depends on what sources you want to believe. The oldest Biblical sources that we have concerning the history of Judah are the books of Samuel and Kings, compiled by what are generally known as the Deuteronomists: historians writing at the time of king Josiah of Judah (c. 649–609 BCE). Like all historians they had their own axes to grind. As I have said numerous times, history is not about documenting facts, it is about ascribing meaning to facts. Mere recording of historical facts is chronicling or archiving, not history. History is something deeper, and there is good reason to argue that the Deuteronomists were the world’s first true historians. The Deuteronomists were intent on “purifying” the religion of Judah (that is, getting rid of supposedly “foreign” influences), as their first step in setting up Judah as a fully independent nation, free from the imperial demands of Egypt, Assyrian, and Babylon. They chose Josiah as their model king based on their interpretation of historical records. He was supposed to be a direct descendant of David, the archetypical king, chosen by God, to govern his chosen people, and Solomon, his son, had built the first temple in Jerusalem. Josiah (by the Deuteronomists’ estimation) was destined to return Judah to the glory days of David and Solomon, when the combined tribes of Israel were pre-eminent (and Jerusalem was the center of the universe). Since those days, Israel and Judah had suffered numerous defeats from neighbor states, and the Deuteronomists argued that this was because they had fallen away from the true worship of Yahweh, their national god (sometimes mistakenly translated as Jehovah). In many circles, Josiah was considered to be the foretold Messiah (anointed warrior/king), the second coming of David who would vanquish all before him because Yahweh was on his side. Josiah in Hebrew – Yoshiyahu (יֹאשִׁיָהוּ) – means “healed by Yahweh” or “supported by Yahweh.” This plan went belly up when Josiah was defeated and killed by Egyptian forces at the battle of Megiddo (Armageddon in Hebrew) in 609 BCE. Judah became a vassal state of Egypt, then of Babylon when Babylon vied for supremacy in the Levant with Egypt.  Things get a bit complicated at this point, but the essentials are fairly straightforward. Judah rebelled against Babylon’s vassalage on three occasions: 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE. Each time, Judah was defeated and some of Jerusalem’s elite were exiled to Babylon, with the middle defeat in 587 (or 586) being the worst and most significant historically.

The destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the priests, could have marked the end of the religion of Judah. But it didn’t. If anything, it strengthened and solidified it for a very important reason: the Temple had been destroyed and the people were separated from their Holy Land. If they clung on to the old religion it would die because it was inextricably linked to Jerusalem and the Temple (most notably a long tradition of animal sacrifices). To survive, they had to create a new religion to hold themselves together as a people. This is the subject of a book of mine which has been journeying around presses for many years. Consequently, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the general outline of my hypothesis is in line with the thinking of a number of Biblical scholars and archeologists – certainly not all, by any means. It will not sit well with orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians.

Empires have been able to subjugate peoples for generations by displacing them from their home territories. The Assyrians did it in antiquity and Stalin did it in the 20th century. If your cultural identity is rooted to a specific geography and specific buildings within that geography, then your culture can be destroyed if you are torn away from that geography. If your cultural identity is rooted in something portable, then you can survive being transported anywhere. Many ancient cultures had gods that were fixed in particular places, and at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by, Yahweh, god of Judah, had his home in the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests forced into exile in Babylon devised a new idea. God was not rooted anywhere geographic: he was located in THE WORD. God’s home was the sacred texts that embodied his words. They could be copied if need be, and they could be transported to wherever the Judean people found themselves. Thus, the people were freed from a specific temple in a specific place. Their cultural identity could be preserved. In other words, I am saying that Judaism was born in Babylon among the priests and people of the Exile. You may understand now why my book on the subject is not having an easy job finding a publisher. It will, but there are still hurdles to clear.

For today’s recipe I am breaking with historical chronology a little. One of the ways that Judeans during the Exile avoided assimilation with Babylonians was enforcing strict food laws that made it all but impossible to eat with Babylonians or use their ingredients. Three great commandments – not part of the 10 Commandments, of course – were 1. Don’t marry a foreigner. 2. Don’t dine with a foreigner. 3. Don’t eat foreign food. These commandments were laid down during the Exile, and have endured to this day. Judeans in Exile probably ate the dishes from home as much as they could. Their traditional meats were from locally herded cows, sheep, and goats. They did not herd pigs. But the Babylonians did. They relished them, in fact. So, they were supremely taboo. These days there is much more interchange of food ideas between Iraq, successor state to Babylon, and Israel. Laffat betinjan –  لفّة بيتنجان – a fried eggplant sandwich from Iraq is popular in Israel, where it is called sabich. Eggplant has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory, and it must be domesticated. There are no wild edible versions. Because there are no Greek or Latin names for the vegetable, and all the words in European languages are derived from Arabic, it is believed that eggplants were introduced into the Mediterranean region by Arabs in the Middle Ages. In other words, Judeans and Babylonians were not eating eggplants during the Exile. No matter. Iraqis and Israelis are enjoying fried eggplant sandwiches these days.

With this dish you have a lot of choices, so let me start with frying the eggplant, and then talk about possibilities. The main concern with frying eggplant is to do all you can to prevent the slices from absorbing too much oil.

Betinjan Maqli  بيتنجان مقلي Fried Eggplant


1 large eggplant (about 1½ lb)
flour for coating
oil for frying


Cut off the stem of the eggplant, and peel it lengthwise. Cut the eggplant into 2 parts crosswise, and then cut each part into ¼ in-thick slices lengthwise.

Place the eggplant pieces in salted warm water and place a plate or other flat heavy kitchen object to make sure they stay completely submerged. Let me soak for 30 minutes.

Drain the eggplant pieces, and coat them well with flour on all sides.

Heat ½ in of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and fry the eggplant pieces in batches until golden brown on both sides. Turn once only.

Drain the eggplant pieces on a wire rack.

These fried eggplant pieces can be arranged on a platter with sliced tomatoes, grated garlic, and chopped parsley, and you can also provide cayenne pepper, lemon juice and Greek yoghurt. This will serve as a side dish on its own, or you can assemble sandwiches in pita bread, or other flatbread, according to your tastes. Iraqis often use khubuz. You don’t have to limit your ingredients for the sandwiches either. Israelis often add boiled egg slices, for example.

Jul 212018

On July 20,1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in the lunar module (LM), Eagle, and Armstrong became the first person to step on to the lunar surface six hours after landing on this date (July 21) at 02:56:15 UTC. Aldrin joined him about 20 minutes later. I could have waited until next year, which will be the 50th anniversary of the event to write this post, but round numbers are overrated. Besides, there will be cascades of posts on that day and my post will get lost. As it is, there is no need to record the actual events in detail here. You can get them from hundreds of sources, including personal accounts by Armstrong, Aldrin, and dozens of others who were involved. I want to do two things here before getting to my recipe: first, to take note of the incredible precariousness of all the Apollo missions, but especially Apollo 11, and to list some of the many missteps of the mission, any one of which could have proven fatal for the astronauts; and second, to give a few of my own memories of the event.

Back in the early 1960s when I was a young teen in South Australia I remember reading about the plans for landing a craft on the moon, and especially remember the early ideas for the procedure. It seemed a little like something Rube Goldberg would have dreamed up. There were so many complex stages, most notably having to detach the command module from the upper stage of the rocket, turn around, attach to the lunar module, and pull it out of the rocket stage. My boy’s comic, named Eagle, as it happens, had stories in it about rockets landing on other planets, and the voyages were not anywhere near as delicate nor complex as the Apollo missions. Dan Dare, for example, just hopped into his spaceship and traveled the galaxy like driving a (complicated) bus. Dan never worried about re-entry, gravity, flight trajectories, and so forth. Apollo flights, on the other hand, did have to deal with the realities of physics. The lunar landing craft had to be light and, hence, flimsy, and, so, could not withstand the rigors of takeoff from earth. Therefore, it had to be encased in a sturdy flight container for takeoff, but had to be released from the container once the craft was freed from earth’s atmosphere and the hard knocks of takeoff.

I followed the developments of the Apollo program as best I could, given that, at the outset, news media were really limited, and NASA did not reveal a whole lot as the missions went on. The launch pad fire and deaths of the astronauts on Apollo 1 grabbed headlines, of course, but in England, where I was living by then, news coverage was sparse. Mostly what I recall was that from before Apollo 1 to Apollo 11 it seemed as if there was a new mission every few weeks, as well as numerous test activities. It was not until Apollo 7 in October 1968 that we saw live television images of a flight crew, and from then on it seemed helter-skelter onwards until the actual moon landing. At the time, the technology seemed so sophisticated and close to science fiction, whereas now, when I look back on the Apollo missions I marvel that they managed to land on the moon at all. The laptop I am working on now has more computing power than NASA’s mainframe in 1969, and I have owned programmable calculators that can do more than Apollo 11’s onboard computer. What is more, the lunar modules for moon landings look less sturdy than a big cigar box on toy legs, and if you’ve ever seen originals or replicas in museums, you’ll know how amazingly small and cramped they were.

The fact that NASA kept secret from the general public so many of the missteps of the Apollo missions is no surprise, and it astounds me now to read about them, and to try to imagine the dangers the astronauts faced hourly, and how calmly they dealt with them (even though vital signs monitors show they were under almost constant stress). One of the minor details that sticks in my mind is that after Eagle landed on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to sleep for several hours before walking on the moon. Whose bright idea was that? Sure, you are the first people on the moon and in a while you will be walking on the surface, but, meanwhile, just tuck up and sleep. Yeah – that’s going to happen.

Here’s short list of some (not all) of the problems encountered by Apollo 11, any one of which could have been disastrous to the mission and to the astronauts:

(1) As the descent began, Armstrong and Aldrin found that they were passing landmarks on the surface four seconds too early and reported that they were “long” in their descent, meaning that they would land miles west of their target point. When Armstrong looked outside as they were nearing the surface, he saw that the computer’s landing target was in a boulder-strewn area just north and east of a 300-meter (980 ft) diameter crater (later determined to be West crater, named for its location in the western part of the originally planned landing ellipse). Armstrong took semi-automatic control and, with Aldrin calling out altitude and velocity data, landed at 20:17:40 UTC on Sunday July 20th with about 25 seconds of fuel left.

(2) Five minutes into the descent burn, and 6,000 feet (1,800 m) above the surface of the Moon, the LM navigation and guidance computer distracted the crew with the first of several unexpected “1202” and “1201” program alarms. Inside Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, computer engineer Jack Garman told guidance officer Steve Bales it was safe to continue the descent, and this was relayed to the crew. The program alarms indicated “executive overflows”, meaning the guidance computer could not complete all of its tasks in real time and had to postpone some of them. Later Garman wrote

Due to an error in the checklist manual, the rendezvous radar switch was placed in the wrong position. This caused it to send erroneous signals to the computer. The result was that the computer was being asked to perform all of its normal functions for landing while receiving an extra load of spurious data which used up 15% of its time. The computer (or rather the software in it) was smart enough to recognize that it was being asked to perform more tasks than it should be performing. It then sent out an alarm, which meant to the astronaut, I’m overloaded with more tasks than I should be doing at this time and I’m going to keep only the more important tasks; i.e., the ones needed for landing.

(3) Apollo 11 landed with less fuel than other missions, and the astronauts encountered a premature low fuel warning. This was later found to be the result of greater propellant ‘slosh’ than expected, causing a malfunction in a fuel sensor. On subsequent missions, extra anti-slosh baffles were added to the tanks to prevent this.

(4) Armstrong initially had some difficulties squeezing through the hatch with his Portable Life Support System (PLSS). According to veteran Moon-walker John Young, a redesign of the LM to incorporate a smaller hatch had not been followed by a redesign of the PLSS backpack, so some of the highest heart rates recorded from Apollo astronauts occurred during LM exit and return.

(5) While moving inside the cabin on the moon, Aldrin accidentally damaged the circuit breaker that was supposed to arm the main engine for lift off from the Moon. There was initial concern that this damage would prevent firing the engine, stranding them on the Moon. Fortunately, a felt-tip pen was sufficient to activate the switch. Had this not worked, the Lunar Module circuitry could have been reconfigured to allow firing the ascent engine.

(6) On the return to Earth, a bearing at the Guam tracking station failed, potentially preventing communication on the last segment of the Earth return. A regular repair was not possible in the available time but the station director, Charles Force, had his ten-year-old son Greg use his small hands to reach into the housing and pack it with grease.

President Nixon’s speech writer William Safire had prepared “In Event of Moon Disaster” for the President to read on television in case the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the Moon. The contingency plan originated in a memo from Safire to Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, in which Safire suggested a protocol the administration might follow in reaction to such a disaster. According to the plan, Mission Control would “close down communications” with the LM, and a clergyman would “commend their souls to the deepest of the deep” in a public ritual likened to burial at sea. The last line of the prepared text contained an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s First World War poem, “The Soldier”.

I well remember watching the blurry televised images of Eagle on the moon’s surface and the seemingly endless wait for Armstrong to emerge. It was very late when Armstrong came out, around 3 am GMT (on a Monday morning), and, even though I was on school holiday, I was working at a factory and had to be at work before 8 am; so, I could not watch much more than the initial descent and hear Armstrong’s first words upon stepping on the surface before heading to bed. Before, during, and after the BIG EVENT there was immense fanfare on UK media. I particularly recall debates with various panelists on BBC1 over whether landing on the moon had any real benefits, and whether or not the money could be put to better use, such as feeding the poor. One pompous ass made the point, in several debates, that there were poor people in Spain when Isabella and Ferdinand funded Columbus, and surely the discovery of the Americas was a better use for the money than feeding the poor. In the last of these debates Sammy Davis Jr remarked, “There are a lot of African-Americans who would disagree with you.” The fact is that the moon landing was a massive publicity stunt initiated by JFK in 1961 because the Soviet Union was clearly outstripping the US in what became known as the Space Race. Kennedy wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and billions of dollars were poured into the effort.

Space exploration has certainly yielded multiple scientific discoveries, and there are numerous technological benefits to having permanently orbiting satellites, space stations, and what have you. Even moon exploration has uncovered a wealth of information about the origins of the solar system. But you do not need living human beings tracking across the moon’s surface to collect samples and to plant experimental equipment. All of that can be done remotely using robots and the like, and it would not imperil lives, (although there was emphasis on the Apollo 16 mission on capitalizing on the uniqueness of human observation). Putting living, breathing, and speaking humans on the moon was a gigantic PR move above all else, as evidenced by the fact that the Apollo program was cancelled after Apollo 17 flew to the moon in 1972, and no efforts to put anyone on the moon again have been seriously contemplated since. Scientifically, landing people on the moon is not a big deal; for propaganda purposes the rewards were incalculable.

As a teen I was acutely aware of the propaganda aspect of the Apollo program, and I lost all interest in moon shots after seeing Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. I was not alone either. It is well known that broadcasts by the Apollo 13 astronauts on the way to the moon were not shown on regular network television, because of lack of interest on the part of the US public, but, of course, when an explosion in the command module crippled it, all eyes were glued to the mission until it returned safely — mine included.

The food aboard Apollo 11 represented the height of late 1960s technology, as much as the Lunar Landing Module or the spacesuits worn on moonwalks. Tubes of apple sauce and stew that were used on earlier flights were ditched for meals that could be heated by the astronauts and eaten with real cutlery. The big problem in earlier missions was that the astronauts lost weight alarmingly while in space. The graph below, from the Autumn 1969 edition of the journal Nutrition Today, illustrates the dramatic weight loss suffered by Apollo astronauts.

It was not energy expenditure in mission activities that was the problem. Mowing the lawn would take up more calories than walking on the moon. The stress and tension of being in space was the main issue, coupled with the fact that the meals previously prepared by dietary scientists were not appetizing, and so the astronauts were simply not eating enough. Meals had to be lightweight, compact, and edible in zero gravity, and items that could produce crumbs, such as hamburger buns, were, and still are, banned on all space flights because of the havoc that crumbs can cause in the equipment. To combat some of these difficulties, NASA scientists employed the “wet pack” food technology developed on Apollo 8. A wet pack allowed thermo-stabilized food to retain its moisture content, thereby saving astronauts valuable food prep time. It also allowed them to see and smell what they were eating, making meals a bit more appetizing.

A major improvement in food technology starting with the Apollo 11 mission was the spoon-bowl packet, allowing for food to be rehydrated and warmed in a pouch, which was then opened with a plastic zipper and eaten with a spoon. The moisture in the food made it cling to the spoon, even in a reduced-gravity environment. Sausage patties, pork with scalloped potatoes, and chicken stew were some of the dishes packed in spoon-bowls and eaten during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin’s favorite was shrimp cocktail. He wrote, “The shrimp were chosen one by one to be sure they would be tiny enough to squeeze out of the food packet, and they were delicious!” Neil Armstrong’s favorite meal was spaghetti with meat sauce, scalloped potatoes, and fruitcake cubes. You won’t be able to make any of these dishes to the exacting standards of NASA kitchens, nor eat them in zero gravity, but you can make them the normal way in memory of Apollo 11 on this day.