Apr 052019

Today (or close to it) is the traditional Chinese Cold Food or Hanshi Festival which developed from the local commemoration of the death of the Jin nobleman Jie Zitui in the 7th century BCE. Its name derives from the tradition of avoiding the lighting of any kind of fire, even for the preparation of food. Cold Food Festival is not an official holiday in any country or region, but it continues to see some observance in China, Korea, and Vietnam generally as part of Tomb-Sweeping Festivals (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/qingming-festival/ ).

The usual story for the origin of the Cold Food and Tomb-Sweeping Festivals concerns the 7th-century-BC Jin nobleman Jie Zhitui, a model of self-sacrificing loyalty. During the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history, the Zhou Kingdom began to break up into its constituent parts and their lords gained more and more freedom from central control. One of these states was Jin, around modern Shanxi. As was common among wealthy Chinese at the time, its lord had many wives. One of them, Li Ji, was of lower status and came from the Rong tribes who lived to China’s west, but successfully schemed to become a full wife and to establish her son as the lord’s successor. Her older stepson Ji Chong’er was framed for revolting against the lord in 655 BCE, forcing the prince to flee for his life to his mother’s family among the Di tribes north of China. Only 15 of his men followed him into exile. These included Jie Zhitui, who entertained the prince with his poems and music. He was so considerate of his lord that once, when their supplies were stolen while traveling through Wey, he used meat from his own thigh to make soup to relieve the prince’s hunger.

In 636 BC, the duke of Qin finally invaded Jin on Chong’er’s behalf and installed him as its duke. (Posthumously, he became known as the “Wen” or “Civilized Duke” of Jin.) In 635 BCE, the new duke was generous to those who had helped him in adversity but overlooked Jie, who sadly withdrew into poor obscurity in the forests near Mt Mian. The duke sent repeated envoys to lure Jie back to court, but he felt no ambition for political power. Too loyal to directly criticize his master but too principled to accept a place in a corrupt administration, he opted to simply remain in seclusion. Annoyed, the duke ordered a forest fire to be started around three sides of the mountain to smoke Jie and his mother out of hiding.

Instead of coming out, they were burnt alive. Jie’s charred corpse was found still standing, embracing or tightly bound to a tree. In his remorse, the duke renamed the mountain Mt. Jie, established the town still known as Jiexiu (“Jie’s Rest”), and inaugurated the Cold Food Festival as a memorial period for Jie. In addition to the festival, the story also occasioned the Chinese proverb: “while some can burn off an entire mountain, others are kept from even lighting up to eat their rice”.

The Cold Food Festival is first mentioned in Huan Tan’s New Discussions, composed around the beginning of the 1st century CE. It records that the commoners of Taiyuan Commandery avoided using fire in preparing their food for five days around midwinter, upholding this taboo even when they are gravely ill. This was done in Jie Zhitui’s honor. A biography in the Book of the Later Han relates how the magistrate for Bingzhou (i.e., Taiyuan) found people rich and poor observing a “dragon taboo” against lighting a fire during the month of Jie’s death in midwinter, lest they anger his spirit. Many of the old and young died every year because of the hardship this brought. The magistrate Zhou Ju (周舉) wrote an oration around 130 CE praising Jie but admonishing the people for a tradition that harmed so many that it could not have been what the sage intended. He then had the oration displayed at Jie’s temple and distributed among the poor. This did not end the Cold Food Festival, but the biography notes that local superstitions did improve “to a certain extent”.

At some point over the next century,  moved from the festival moved from the middle of winter to late spring, 105 days after the dongzhi solar term. Since it also spread from Taiyuan to the surrounding commanderies of Shangdang, Xihe, and Yanmen and was still causing some hardship, The Han warlord Cao Cao attempted to outlaw the Cold Food Festival in 206 CE. The heads of offending families were liable for 6 months’ hard labor, their local official was liable for one month himself, and their magistrate was to lose one month’s salary. Cao Cao’s effort was a failure, with observance of the Cold Food Festival on Qingming and for up to a month around it being reported by the mid-3rd century. Shi Le, the Jie emperor of the Later Zhao in the early 4th century, again tried to forbid it. The next year a massive hailstorm devastated crops and forests throughout Shanxi. On the advice of his ministers, he again approved the festival in the region around Taiyuan. The Northern Wei similarly banned the festival in 478 and 496, but were also compelled to approve its observance around Mt Mian. These prohibitions failed to such an extent that, by the time of Jia Sixie’s c. 540 Qimin Yaoshu, a day-long Cold Food Festival had spread across most of China, moved to the day before the Qingming solar term.

The Cold Food Festival grew to a three-day period and began to incorporate ancestral veneration under the Tang and remained more important than celebrations of the Qingming solar term as late as the Song. The present Tomb-Sweeping Festival on Qingming grew by incorporating the Cold Food observances along with the separate holiday of Shangsi. The Cold Food Festival had almost completely disappeared by the end of the Qing.

The Cold Food Festival involves a strict taboo against using fire, usually under the superstitious belief that violations led to violent weather. Up to the 6th century, there was a patch of blackened trees on Mt Mian that were used for local worship of Jie Zhitui and had a reputation for miracles. Traditional cold foods included lǐlào (醴酪), a kind of congee flavored with apricot pits and malt sugar. Later activities included visiting ancestral tombs, cock fighting, playing on swings, beating blankets, and tug-of-war games. Nowadays there are only pockets of celebration of the Cold Food Festival although it has influenced some of the activities and traditional foods for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. In the city of Jiexiu in Shanxi Province, near where Jie died, locals still commemorate the festival, but even there the tradition of eating cold food is no longer practiced.

It is not all that difficult to make lǐlào but getting the ingredients outside of China may be a challenge.  If you can speak Chinese you might be able to get them from a Chinese market. You need to be careful because recipes in English call for “almonds” but this is a mistranslation of the Chinese. The recipe calls for the pits of various species of apricot which look and taste something like bitter almonds, but are not almonds at all. You may be able to find maltose in health food stores. Here is a modern Chinese recipe followed by my loose translation (done with assistance since my Chinese language skills are limited). I could not find a video as an aid, unfortunately.


  1. 准备大麦仁30克,新疆巴旦木也就是大杏仁50克,麦芽糖
  2. 大麦仁用清水浸泡一夜,大杏仁剥壳,用温水浸泡一夜
  3. 泡好的杏仁剥掉外衣,留下洁白的杏仁备用
  4. 麦仁和杏仁一起放入料理机的果浆杯内,加入材料2倍的凉白开磨成杏仁浆
  5. 磨好的杏仁浆用细筛过滤,浓浆流入锅里
  6. 开中小火,一边熬煮一边搅拌
  7. 煮到杏仁浆烧开,再继续煮5分钟至杏仁浆浓稠即可
  8. 煮好的杏仁浆盛入碗里,调入麦芽糖即可食用,也可以调入蜂蜜


  1. You need 30 grams of barley kernel, 50 grams of apricot pits, maltose
  2. Soak the barley kernels and apricot pits in warm water overnight.
  3. Peel the skins off the apricot pits to reveal the white nut.
  4. [Not entirely sure of this translation] Put the kernels and pits into a food processor with an equal quantity of water and grind to a pulp.
  5. Filter the pulp through a fine sieve and let a thick slurry flow into a pan.
  6. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly.
  7. Bring the mix to a slow boil and cook for 5 minutes until the almond pulp is thick.
  8. Put the pulp in a bowl and add maltose to taste (or honey).
Apr 042019

Today is the birthday (1572) of William Strachey, an English writer whose works are among the primary sources for the early history of the English colonization of North America. He is best remembered today as the eye-witness reporter of the 1609 shipwreck on the uninhabited island of Bermuda of the colonial ship Sea Venture, which was caught in a hurricane while sailing to Virginia.

Strachey was born in Saffron Walden, Essex, the grandson of William Strachey (died 1587),[1] and the eldest son of William Strachey (died 1598) and Mary Cooke (died 1587), the daughter of Henry Cooke, Merchant Taylor of London. Strachey was brought up on an estate purchased by his grandfather in the 1560s. In 1588, at the age of 16, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. In 1605 he was at Gray’s Inn, but there is no evidence that he made the law his profession. In 1602 he inherited his father’s estate following a legal dispute with Elizabeth Brocket, his stepmother.

Strachey wrote a sonnet, “Upon Sejanus”, which was published in the 1605 edition of the 1603 play Sejanus His Fall by Ben Jonson. Strachey also kept a residence in London, where he regularly attended plays. He was a shareholder in the Children of the Revels, a troupe of boy actors who performed ‘in a converted room in the former Blackfriars monastery’, as evidenced by his deposition in a lawsuit in 1606. Strachey became friends with the city’s poets and playwrights, including Thomas Campion, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Hugh Holland, John Marston, George Chapman, and Matthew Roydon, many of them members of the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen” who met at the Mermaid Tavern.

By 1605 Strachey was in precarious financial circumstances from which he spent the rest of his life trying to recover. In 1606 he used a family connection to obtain the position of secretary to Thomas Glover, the English ambassador to Turkey. He traveled to Constantinople, but quarreled with the ambassador and was dismissed in March 1607 and returned to England in June 1608. He then decided to mend his fortunes in the New World, and in 1609 purchased two shares in the Virginia Company and sailed to Virginia on the Sea Venture with Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers in the summer of that year.

The ship was blown off course by a hurricane. Leaking, and with its foundering imminent, the ship was run aground off the coast of Bermuda, accidentally beginning England’s colonization of the archipelago. The group was stranded on the island for almost a year, during which they constructed two small boats in which they eventually completed the voyage to Virginia.

Strachey wrote an eloquent letter dated 15 July 1610, to an unnamed “Excellent Lady” in England about the Sea Venture disaster, including an account of the precarious state of the Jamestown colony. Being critical of the management of the colony, it was suppressed by the Virginia Company. After the dissolution of the company it was published in 1625 by Samuel Purchas as “A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir THOMAS GATES Knight”. It is generally thought to be one of the sources for Shakespeare’s The Tempest because of certain verbal, plot and thematic similarities. Strachey’s writings are among the few first-hand descriptions of Virginia in the period. His glossary of words of Powhatan is one of only two records of the language (the other being Captain John Smith’s)

Strachey remained at Jamestown for less than a year, but during that time he became the Secretary of the Colony after the drowning death of Matthew Scrivener in 1609. He returned to England probably in late 1611 and published a compilation of the colonial laws put in place by the governors. He then produced an extended manuscript about the Virginia colony, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia, dedicating the first version to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, in 1612. The manuscript included his eyewitness account of life in early Virginia, but borrowed heavily from the earlier work of Richard Willes, James Rosier, John Smith, and others. Strachey produced two more versions during the next six years, dedicating one to Francis Bacon and the other to Sir Allen Apsley. It too was critical of the Virginia Company management of the colony, and Strachey failed to find a patron to publish his work, which was finally first published in 1849 by the Hakluyt Society.

Strachey died of unknown causes in June 1621. The parish register of St. Giles, Camberwell, in Southwark records his burial on 21st June 1621. He died in poverty, leaving this verse:

Hark! Twas the trump of death that blew
My hour has come. False world adieu
Thy pleasures have betrayed me so
That I to death untimely go.

In 1996, Strachey’s signet ring was discovered in the ruins of Jamestown, identified by the family seal, an eagle.

Because Strachey was born in Saffron Walden, a recipe involving saffron is called for. Saffron Walden used to be called simply Walden, then Chepyng (i.e. Market) Walden when a market was moved there in the 13th century. It became Saffron Walden in the 16th century when it became the center for growing saffron crocuses, and saffron became a favored ingredient in many dishes – rivaling spices from the East.

Saffron is one of my favorite spices and I use it a lot when it is easy to get. Right now it isn’t, but when I lived in Italy it was really abundant and not dreadfully expensive, so I always had plenty to hand. For a celebration of the day I recommend you use saffron in your favorite way.  Meanwhile here is a period recipe from The English Huswife: Containing the inward and outward Vertues which ought to be in a Compleat Woman… by G. Markham (1615).  I do not recommend the recipe, partly because of the sheer quantity, partly because I am not a fan of bread pudding, although it might be all right because it seems more like a classic suet pudding (i.e. boiled) rather than a baked dish like modern bread pudding.

To make bread Puddings

Take the Yelks and Whites of a dozen or fourteen Eggs, and having beat them very well, put unto them the fine powder of Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs, Sugar, Cinnamon, Saffron, and Salt; then take the quantity of two loaves of white grated Bread, Dates very small shred, and great store of Currants, with good plenty either of Sheeps, Hogs or Beef suet beaten and cut small: then when all is mixt, and stirred well together, and hath stood a while to settle, then fill it into the Farms, as hath been before shewed, and in like manner boyl them, cook them, and serve them to the Table.


Mar 272019

Today is the birthday (1745) of Lindley Murray, a North American born Quaker who moved to England where he became a writer and grammarian. Once in a while I feel a need to salute grammarians who, although sometimes overly pedantic, keep us within reasonable bounds. I have far too many friends and former students who decry precision in writing, and mostly I simply grin and bear it. But sometimes I rebel.

I expect the world has always been filled with people whose writing is poor and shallow, just as there are people who cannot draw or compose music. All of these skills require patience and dedication to master, and many (perhaps most) people have neither. Not a problem. I am not going to look down on someone who has no interest in painting, nor on someone who has no interest in writing. I do object, however, when all too frequently I am told by a terrible writer that writing well is a waste of time and effort. If you want to be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed or misunderstood, then by all means write with bad grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Above all, do not blame the language for your own inabilities. It can perform wonders, but you have to know what you are doing. It is not fair to say, as I have heard way too often, “If it could be written, I would not have to dance/play/paint . . . etc.” Idle rubbish. It is not language that is inadequate; it is either your education, or your lack of attention to the skills and subtleties of writing that is at fault. Murray wanted people to do better.

Lindley Murray was born at Harper Tavern in Pennsylvania. His father, Robert Murray, a member of an old Quaker family, was one of the leading New York merchants. Murray was the eldest of twelve children, all of whom he survived, although he was puny and delicate in childhood. When six years old, he was sent to school in Philadelphia, but soon left to accompany his parents to North Carolina, where they lived until 1753. They then moved to New York, where Murray was sent to a good school, but was put down as a ‘heedless boy’. At 14 years old he was placed in his father’s counting-house. In spite of endeavors to foster in him the commercial spirit, Murray’s interests were mainly concentrated in science and literature. He escaped to Burlington, New Jersey, entered a boarding-school, and started to study French. His retreat was discovered, he was brought back to New York, and allowed a private tutor. His father still wanted him to apply himself to commerce, but he stated arguments in favor of a literary profession so ably in writing that his father’s lawyer advised him to let him study law.

Four years later Murray was called to the bar, and practiced as counsel and attorney in the province of New York. At the age of 22 he married, and in 1770 went to England, but returned in 1771 to New York. Here his practice became both large and lucrative, in spite of his conscientious care to ‘discourage litigation, and to recommend a peaceable settlement of differences.’ On the outbreak of hostilities in the colonies America, Murray went with his wife to Long Island, where he spent four years fishing, sailing, and shooting. On the declaration of independence he returned to New York, and was so successful that he retired in 1783 to a mansion on the Hudson.

Because Murray’s health was failing, he decided to try the English climate (yes, you read that right). In 1784, he left North America and never returned. For the remainder of his life he lived in Holgate, near York, and for the last sixteen years of his life, his physical condition, likely the result of Post-Polio Syndrome, confined him to his house.

His library became noted for its theological and philological treasures. He studied botany, and his garden was said to exceed in variety the Royal Gardens at Kew. The summer house in which he wrote his grammars still remains. Murray’s first published work, The Power of Religion on the Mind,  (1787) went to 20 editions by 1842, and was twice translated into French. To the 8th edition (1795) was added ‘Extracts from the Writings of divers Eminent Men representing the Evils of Stage Plays, &c.,’ published separately 1789 and 1799.

His attention was then drawn to the lack of suitable lesson-books for a Friends’ school for girls in York, and in 1795 he published his English Grammar. The manuscript petition from the teachers requesting him to prepare it has been preserved. The work became rapidly popular; it went through 50 editions, was edited, abridged, simplified, and enlarged in England and the US, and for a long time was used in schools to the exclusion of all other grammar-books. In 1816, an edition corrected by the author was issued in 2 vols.  An ‘Abridgment’ of this version by Murray, issued two years later, went through more than 120 editions of ten thousand each. It was printed at the New England Institution for the Blind in embossed characters, Boston, 1835. English Exercises followed (1797), with A Key (27th ed. London, 1847), and both works were in great demand. Murray’s English Reader, Sequel, and Introduction, issued respectively 1799, 1800, and 1801 (31st edit. 1836), were equally successful, as well as the Lecteur Francais, 1802, and Introduction to the Lecteur Francais, 1807. An English Spelling Book, 1804, reached 44 editions, and was translated into Spanish (Cadiz, 1841). The 150,000th First Book for Children, with portrait and woodcuts, was issued in 1859. He died on 16 January 1826, aged 80.

You can find, The English Reader: or, Pieces in Prose and Poetry, Selected from the Best Writers Designed to Assist Young Persons to Read with Propriety and Effect; to Improve Their Language and Sentiments; and to Inculcate Some of the Most Important Principles of Piety and Virtue. : With a Few Preliminary Observations on the Principles of Good Reading. (1799) here if you are interested: https://books.google.com.kh/books?id=cy4ZAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=meal%20&f=false .

Mrs Beeton’s prose style would pass muster with Murray, and this segment speaks of another transplant from New York to England:

THE APPLE.—The most useful of all the British fruits is the apple, which is a native of Britain, and may be found in woods and hedges, in the form of the common wild crab, of which all our best apples are merely seminal varieties, produced by culture or particular circumstances. In most temperate climates it is very extensively cultivated, and in England, both as regards variety and quantity, it is excellent and abundant. Immense supplies are also imported from the United States and from France. The apples grown in the vicinity of New York are universally admitted to be the finest of any; but unless selected and packed with great care, they are apt to spoil before reaching England.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 apples, 3/4 lb. of suet-crust No. 1215, sugar to taste.

Mode.—Pare and take out the cores of the apples without dividing them; sweeten, and roll each apple in a piece of crust, made by recipe No. 1211; be particular that the paste is nicely joined; put the dumplings into floured cloths, tie them securely, and put them into boiling water. Keep them boiling from 1/2 to 3/4 hour; remove the cloths, and send them hot and quickly to table. Dumplings boiled in knitted cloths have a very pretty appearance when they come to table. The cloths should be made square, just large enough to hold one dumpling, and should be knitted in plain knitting, with very coarse cotton.

Time.—3/4 to 1 hour, or longer should the dumplings be very large.

Average cost, 11/2d. each.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Seasonable from August to March, but flavourless after the end of January.

Mar 262019

Today is the birthday (1773) of Nathaniel Bowditch, author of The New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802 and still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel. Bowditch was born in Salem, Province of Massachusetts Bay, to Habakkuk Bowditch, a cooper, and Mary (Ingersoll) Bowditch. At the age of 10 he left school to work in his father’s cooperage before becoming indentured at 12 for nine years as a bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler. In 1786, (age 14), Bowditch began to study algebra and two years later he taught himself calculus. He also taught himself Latin in 1790 and French in 1792 so he was able to read mathematical works such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. He found thousands of errors in John Hamilton Moore’s The New Practical Navigator, and at 18, he copied all the mathematical papers of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Among his many significant scientific contributions later was a translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, a lengthy work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy. This translation was critical to the development of astronomy in the United States.

In 1795, Bowditch went to sea on the first of four voyages as a ship’s clerk and captain’s writer. His fifth voyage was as master and part owner of a ship. During his time at sea, Bowditch became intensely interested in the mathematics involved in celestial navigation. He worked initially with John Hamilton Moore’s London-published “Navigator”, which was known to have errors. To have exact tables to work from, Bowditch recomputed all of Moore’s tables, and rearranged and expanded the work. He contacted the US publisher of the work, Edmund Blunt, who asked him to correct and revise the third edition on his fifth voyage. The task was so extensive that Bowditch decided to write his own book, and to “put down in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew”. On that trip, it is said that every man of the crew of 12, including the ship’s cook, became competent to take and calculate lunar observations and to plot the correct position of the ship.

In 1802 Blunt published the first edition of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, which became the western hemisphere shipping industry standard for the next century and a half. The text included several solutions to the spherical triangle problem that were new, as well as extensive formulae and tables for navigation. In 1866, the United States Hydrographic Office purchased the copyright and since that time the book has been in continuous publication, with regular revisions to keep it current. Bowditch’s influence on the American Practical Navigator was so profound that to this day mariners refer to it simply as Bowditch. Student Naval officers prior to the establishment of the Naval Academy referred to the work as “the immaculate Bowditch”.

Following this voyage, he returned to Salem in 1803 to resume his mathematical studies and enter the insurance business. In 1804, Bowditch became North America’s first insurance actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. Under his direction, the company prospered despite difficult political conditions and the War of 1812. Bowditch’s mathematical and astronomical work during this time earned him a significant standing, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799 and the American Philosophical Society in 1809. He was offered the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard in 1806, but turned it down. In 1804, an article on his observations of the Moon was published and in 1806 he published naval charts of several harbors, including Salem. More scientific publications followed, including a study of a meteor explosion (1807), three papers on the orbits of comets (1815, 1818, 1820) and a study of the Lissajous figures created by the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points (1815).

As well as Harvard, the United States Military Academy and the University of Virginia offered Bowditch chairs in mathematics. Bowditch again refused these offers, perhaps (in the case of the University of Virginia) because the $2,000 salary offered was two-thirds of the salary he received as president of the insurance company. Bowditch’s translation of the first four volumes of Laplace’s Traité de mécanique céleste was completed by 1818. Publication of the work, however, was delayed for many years, most likely due to cost. Nonetheless, he continued to work on it with the assistance of Benjamin Peirce, adding commentaries that doubled its length. By 1819, Bowditch’s international reputation had grown to the extent that he was elected as a member of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London and the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1823, Bowditch left the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company to become an actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in Boston. There he served as a “money manager” (an investment manager) for wealthy individuals who made their fortunes at sea, directing their wealth toward manufacturing. Towns such as Lowell prospered as a result. Bowditch’s move from Salem to Boston involved the transfer of over 2,500 books, 100 maps and charts and 29 volumes of his own manuscripts.

Bowditch died in Boston in 1838 from stomach cancer. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a monument to him was erected through public collections.

Salem was, of course, a Puritan stronghold in colonial times (think witch trials) and John Josselyn wrote about the region in the 17th century in Two Voyages to New England. Here is a recipe from the book for pumpkin (called “pompion”) boiled to a mush, much like apple sauce, and served as a side dish. Spices are cook’s choice. I used to use allspice and cloves as well as ginger.

The Ancient New England standing dish.

But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.”

Mar 162019

Today is another coincidence day – the birthdays of two Amsterdam authors of the Dutch Golden Age: Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero (1585) and P. C. Hooft (1581). Not surprisingly, they were friends and collaborated, but there is no record of them ever having a shared birthday party. We will have to make up for the omission.

Bredero was born in Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic, where he lived his whole life. He called himself “G.A. Bredero, Amstelredammer”, and sometimes he is called Breero or Brederode. He was the third child of Marry Gerbrants and Adriaen Cornelisz Bredero, who was a shoemaker and a successful real estate agent. Bredero was born in the Nes, nowadays number 41, and in 1602 he and his family moved to a house on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, now number 244, which his father had bought. Bredero lived in this house for the rest of his life. Both houses are now restaurants in Amsterdam’s famous red light district.

At school Bredero learned French and possibly also some English and Latin. Later he was educated as an artist by the Antwerp painter Francesco Badens, but none of his paintings have survived. In 1611 he became a member of the rederijkerskamer d’Eglantier (“Eglantier rhetoric chamber”), where he was an active member and became friends with Roemer Visscher and P.C.Hooft. Together with Hooft he supported Samuel Coster in the creation of Nederduytsche Academie (First Dutch Academy) which was intended to provide a better environment for the production of plays than the rederijkerskamers. Around this time he wrote the play De Spaanschen Brabander Ierolimo. Between 1611 and 1618, seven of his plays were produced in Amsterdam.

The only public position Bredero achieved was as vaandrig or standard bearer of the civic guard. On 23rd August 1618, at the age of 33, Bredero suddenly died, shortly after he had recovered from pneumonia that he had contracted after falling through ice. He never married.

Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, often abbreviated to P.C. Hooft, was born in Amsterdam as the son of the then mayor, Cornelis Hooft. In 1598, his father sent him to France and Italy in order to get prepared for a career as merchant. However, Pieter was more interested in art. In particular, he was deeply impressed by the Italian renaissance. In 1609, he was appointed bailiff of Muiden and the Gooiland. He founded the Muiderkring, a literary society located at his home, the Muiderslot, the castle of Muiden, in which he got to live due to his appointment as sheriff of Muiden. Among the members were the poets and playwrights Constantijn Huygens, Maria Tesselschade, Bredero and Joost van den Vondel, as well as the Portuguese singer Francisca Duarte.

Hooft was a prolific writer of plays, poems and letters, and his output can be divided into three periods: (1) 1602 – 1611, love poems (2) 1612- 1618, plays (3) 1618 onwards, history. After the death of Bredero, he concentrated on writing his history of the Netherlands (Nederduytsche Historiën), inspired by Roman historian Tacitus. His focus was primarily on the Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain. Though his avowed intent in this work was to give a report of the events which was as impartial as possible, he did not really succeed. The first volumes of his massive history were published in 1642, but he died in 1647 before the full oeuvre was in print.

The classic cookbook of the Dutch Golden Age is De Verstandige Kok (The Sensible Cook), published in 1669. Despite the fact that the Dutch dominated the spice trade for centuries, their cooking has never been overwhelmingly spicy. The term “bland” more frequently comes to mind, but in the Golden Age there was an emphasis on variety, freshness, and quantity. You may also be familiar with numerous still lifes of tables groaning with attractive raw ingredients. Here is chicken stewed with vegetables which is meatier than the title suggests. The hen is cooked with mutton (for a rich broth) and veal meatballs are added along with the vegetables.

Om een Hoen te stoven met Groen.

Neemt een goet Hoen wel gesuyvert, laet met eenige stucken Schape-vleesch, met weynigh Zout koken, half gaer zijnde, doet daer by in een stoof-panne, wat Sausisen of kleene Frickedil, oock een goede handt vol Endivie, Salaet, Suringh en Sellery, oock Aspargies, en voor al de Boter niet te vergeten.

To stew a hen with greens

Take a good chicken, well cleaned, and boil it with some pieces of mutton with a little salt. When it is half done, add some sausages or small meatballs in a stewing pan, and a large handful of endives, lettuce, sorrel and celery, also asparagus. Especially do not forget the butter.

Om Frickedillen te maken.

Neemt Kalfs-vleesch, met Kalfs-vet ghehackt, doet daer by Foelie, Noten, Zout, Peper, kneet wel onder een, dan kont gy daar van maken soo groot en kleyn als ‘t u belieft, oock heel in de panne braden; veele nemen een weynigh van de uytterste Schilletjes dun afgeschilt, van Orangie-appelen of Lamoenen, en daer heel kleyn onder gekerft, geeft een heel goede geur, en smakelijck.

To make meatballs

Take veal, chopped with veal fat, add mace, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Knead it well together. You can make them as large or small as you like, or fry it [the chopped meat] in one piece in the pan. Some people take a little of the zest of an orange or lime. Chopped small with the meat it gives a very good fragrance, and very tasty.






Mar 152019

Today is the birthday (1851) of Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, FBA, a Scottish archaeologist and Biblical scholar. Although Ramsay was educated in the Tübingen school of thought (founded by F. C. Baur) which doubted the reliability of the Greek Testament, his extensive archaeological and historical studies convinced him of the historical accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles. His work, unlike that of Biblical archeologists who worked primarily on the foundations of Israel in his day, is still respected (with qualifications).

Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the youngest son of a third-generation lawyer, Thomas Ramsay and his wife Jane Mitchell (daughter of William Mitchell. His father died when he was 6 years old, and the family moved from Glasgow to the family home near Alloa. He studied at the University of Aberdeen, where he achieved high distinction and later became Professor of Humanity. He won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in classical moderations (1874) and in literae humaniores (1876), that is, Latin and Greek. He also studied Sanskrit under Theodor Benfey at Göttingen. In 1880 Ramsay received an Oxford studentship for travel and research in Greece. At Smyrna, he met Sir C. W. Wilson, then British consul-general in Anatolia, who advised him on inland areas suitable for exploration. Ramsay and Wilson made two long journeys during 1881-1882.

He traveled widely in Asia Minor and rapidly became the recognized authority on all matters relating to the districts associated with Paul’s missionary journeys and on Christianity in the early Roman Empire. Greece and Turkey remained the focus of Ramsay’s research for the remainder of his academic career. In 1883, he discovered the world’s oldest complete piece of music, the Seikilos epitaph. He was known for his expertise in the historic geography and topography of Asia Minor and of its political, social, cultural, and religious history. He was made a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1882. From 1885 to 1886 Ramsay held the newly created Lincoln Chair of Classical Archaeology and Art at Oxford and became a fellow of Lincoln College (honorary fellow 1898). In 1886 Ramsay was appointed Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen. He remained affiliated with Aberdeen until his retirement in 1911.

Ramsay was known for his careful attention to 1st century CE events, particularly the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles. When he first went to Asia Minor, many of the cities mentioned in Acts had no known location and almost nothing was known of their detailed history or politics. Acts was the only record and Ramsay, skeptical, fully expected his own research to prove the author of Acts hopelessly inaccurate since no one author could possibly know the details of Asia Minor more than a hundred years after the events described therein (the dating of Luke-Acts in Ramsay’s day – since revised earlier). He therefore set out to put the writer of Acts on trial. He devoted his life to unearthing the ancient cities and documents of Asia Minor. After a lifetime of study, however, he concluded:

Further study … showed that the book [Acts] could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement. . . . I set out to look for truth on the borderland where Greece and Asia meet, and found it there. You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.

When Ramsay turned his attention to Paul’s letters, most of which the critics dismissed as forgeries, he concluded that all thirteen New Testament letters that claim to have been written by Paul were authentic. Contemporary scholars are a good deal more guarded on this point. There is nearly universal consensus in modern scholarship on a core group of authentic Pauline epistles whose authorship is rarely contested: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.  Scholarly opinion is sharply divided on whether or not Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are genuine letters of Paul. The remaining four contested epistles – Ephesians, as well as the three known as the Pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) – have been labeled pseudepigraphical (falsely bearing Paul’s name) by most critical scholars. The primary opposition to Pauline authorship for the contested epistles is linguistic: the Greek in them does not accord with Paul’s style, and, in the latter cases, contain numerous anachronisms.

Here is an Anatolian recipe for lamb with purslane and pulses that now uses New World ingredients (such as tomato paste and chiles), which I have eliminated to give something closer to an ancient recipe. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) was a common green in antiquity but is not so easy to find these days outside the Mediterranean, although it is used in Mexican cooking.  It is easy to grow. It has a slightly sour taste. Cooking times here are approximate. You must check the lamb when it is cooking to be sure it is tender before adding other ingredients.

Anatolian Lamb Stew

½ cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
¾ cup small brown lentils
¼ cup olive oil
5 oz boneless lamb shoulder, cubed
1 onion, peeled and
1 ½ lb purslane, thick stems discarded and leaves coarsely shredded
½ cup coarse bulgur
2 tbsp minced garlic
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
chopped spearmint, leaves
salt and black pepper

chopped green onions and lemon wedges (for serving)


In separate pots, cover the chickpeas and lentils with water, bring to the boil and simmer until cooked (about 1 hour). Drain and reserve the cooking liquid.

In a large, cast-iron pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the lamb and cook until browned. Stir in the onion, and cook until softened but not browned. Add ½ cup of water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 40 minutes, stirring from time to time and adding liquid if it becomes too dry.

Add the purslane, bulgur and ½ cup each of the reserved chickpea and lentil cooking liquids to the pot. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas, lentils, garlic and enough water to barely cover. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a small skillet, heat the remaining oil. Add the spearmint and ground black pepper to taste. When the oil begins to sizzle, give it a stir and drizzle it over the stew. Stir once and let stand for 30 minutes. Serve the stew at room temperature or let cool, then refrigerate and serve chilled the following day. Serve the scallions and lemon at the table.

Mar 062019

Today is the birthday (1619) of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, French novelist, playwright and epistolarian with a penchant for fighting duels. The facts of his life and ancestry are shrouded in mystery and obfuscation such that he is known nowadays more from Edmond Rostand’s, drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, which is more invention than confirmed biography. I’ll leave you to sort through the conflicting information if you are interested, and simply hit some points that amuse me.

Cyrano’s baptismal record (which was not discovered until relatively recently, since it for a long time it was not clear where he was born), reads (in translation):

The sixth of March one thousand six hundred and nineteen, Savinien, son of Abel de Cyrano, squire, Lord of Mauvières, and of the lady Espérance Bellenger, the godfather, nobleman Antoine Fanny, King’s Counsellor and Auditor in his Court of Finances, of this parish, the godmother the lady Marie Fédeau, wife of nobleman Master Louis Perrot, Counsellor and Secretary to the King, Household and Crown of France, of the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

In 1622, Abel de Cyrano left Paris with his family and went to settle on his lands at Mauvières and Bergerac in the Vallée de Chevreuse, which had come to him in part after the death of his mother in 1616.

His possessions, situated on the banks of the Yvette River in the parish of Saint-Forget, had been purchased by Savinien I de Cyrano forty years earlier from Thomas de Fortboys, who had bought them himself in 1576 from Lord Dauphin de Bergerac (or Bergerat), whose ancestors had possessed them for more than a century. Cyrano began his basic education in rural schools, but because he paid so little attention to his studies in this setting, his father sent him to school in Paris. Where he went to school is unknown. In 1636, his father sold his estate and returned to Paris. It is not at all certain that Cyrano moved back in with them. At the age of 19, he entered a corps of the guards, serving in the campaigns of 1639 and 1640. As an officer he was notorious for his dueling and boasting. He is said to have left the military and returned to Paris to pursue literature, producing tragedies cast in the orthodox classical mode.

The model for the Roxane character of the Rostand play was Bergerac’s cousin, who lived with his sister, Catherine de Bergerac, at the Convent of the Daughter of the Cross. As in the play, Bergerac did fight at the Siege of Arras (1640) a battle of the Thirty Years’ War between French and Spanish forces in France (though this was not the more famous final Battle of Arras, fought 14 years later). One of his confrères in the battle was the baron Christian of Neuvillette, who married Cyrano’s cousin. However, the plotline of Rostand’s play, involving Roxane and Christian, is entirely fictional.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s works L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (Another World, or the States and Empires of the Moon), published posthumously, (1657) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662) are classics of early modern science fiction. In the former, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers (it may be the earliest description of a space flight by use of a vessel that has rockets attached) and meets the inhabitants. The moon-men have four legs, firearms that shoot game and cook it, and talking earrings used to educate children. His mixture of science and romance in these two works furnished a model for many subsequent writers, among them Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe and probably Voltaire. Corneille and Molière freely borrowed ideas from Le Pédant joué.

Rostand’s play suggests that Cyrano was injured by a falling wooden beam in 1654 while entering the house of his patron, the Duc D’Arpajon. However, the editor of Cyrano’s works, Madeleine Alcover, uncovered a contemporary text which suggests an attack on the duke’s carriage in which a member of his household was injured. It is as yet inconclusive as to whether or not his death was a result of the injury, or an unspecified disease. He died over a year later on July 28th, 1655, aged 36, at the house of his cousin, Pierre De Cyrano, in Sannois. He was buried in a church in Sannois. However, there is strong evidence to support the theory that his death was a result of a botched assassination attempt as well as further damage to his health caused by a period of confinement in a private asylum, orchestrated by his enemies, who succeeded in enlisting the help of his own brother Abel de Cyrano.

Food features as a motif in Rostand’s play, but not in Cyrano’s actual works, so here is a 17th century recipe from Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois (1691). It’s a relatively simply fish salad dressed with what was called “ramolade” but this dressing is much simpler than the later remoulade of haute cuisine.

Salades de poissons

À plusieurs filets de poisson on fait une sausse qu’on appelle ramolade, composée de persil haché de ciboule hachée, des anchois hachés, des câpres hachées, le tout mis dans un plat, avec un peu de sel, de poivre, de muscade, d’huile & de vinaigre bien délayez ensemble : & après avoir dressé vos filets dans son plat, on les arrose de cette ramolade ; & à quelques plats on y ajoute du jus de citron, pour les servir froids.

Fish salad

For all kinds of fish fillets you prepare a sauce that is called ‘ramolade’, consisting of chopped parsley, chopped chives, chopped anchovy, chopped capers. Put all this on a plate with a little salt, pepper, nutmeg, oil and vinegar, well mixed together. And after having arranged the fillets on their plates, sprinkle this ramolade over them. To some plates you can add lemon juice to serve them cold.

Mar 022019

Today is the birthday (1459) of Adriaan Florensz Boeyens who served as pope Adrian VI from 9th January 1522 until his death on 14th September 1523. He is the only Dutchman so far to become pope, and he was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II, 455 years later. Of the six popes who took the regnal name Adrian (or Hadrianus), four were Italians, and one (Adrian IV) was the only English pope. It was, and still is, extremely rare for a pope to take his baptismal name as his regnal name.

Adriaan Florensz was born in Utrecht, which was then the capital of the prince-bishopric of Utrecht, a part of the Burgundian Netherlands in the Holy Roman Empire. He was born into modest circumstances as the son of Florens Boeyensz, also born in Utrecht, and his wife Geertruid. He had three older brothers, Jan, Cornelius, and Claes. He consistently signed with Adrianus Florentii or Adrianus de Traiecto (“Adrian of Utrecht”) in later life, suggesting that his family did not yet have a surname but used patronymics or toponyms. Adriaan was probably raised in a house on the corner of the Brandsteeg and Oude Gracht that was owned by his grandfather Boudewijn (Boeyen, for short). His father, a carpenter and probably a shipwright, died when Adriaan was 10 years old or younger. Adrian studied from a very young age under the Brethren of the Common Life, either at Zwolle or Deventer and was also a student of the Latin school (now Gymnasium Celeanum) in Zwolle.

In June 1476, he started his studies at the university of Leuven, where he pursued philosophy, theology and canon law, thanks to a scholarship granted by Margaret of York, duchess of Burgundy. In 1478 he had the title of Primus Philosophiae, as well as that of Magister Artium (that is, he took his undergraduate degree). In 1488 he was chosen by the Faculty of Arts to be their representative on the Council of the University. On 30th June 1490, he was ordained a priest. After the requisite 12 years of study, Adrian became a Doctor of Theology in 1491. He had been a teacher at the University since 1490, was chosen vice-chancellor of the university in 1493, and Dean of St. Peter’s in 1498. In the latter function he was permanent vice-chancellor of the University and de facto in charge of hiring. His lectures were published, as recreated from his students’ notes; among those who attended was the young Erasmus. Adrian offered him a professorate in 1502, but Erasmus refused.

In November 1506 Margaret of Austria, duchess of Savoy, became governor of the Habsburg Netherlands and chose Adriaan as her advisor. The next year emperor Maximilian I also appointed him as tutor to his seven-year-old grandson, and Margaret’s nephew, who in 1519 became emperor Charles V. By 1512 Adriaan was Charles’s advisor and his court obligations were so time consuming that he quit his positions at the university. In 1515, Charles sent Adriaan to Spain to convince his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand II of Aragon, that the Spanish lands should come under his rule, and not Charles’s Spanish-born younger brother Ferdinand, whom his grandfather had in mind.  Ferdinand of Aragon, and subsequently Charles V, appointed Adriaan bishop of Tortosa, which was approved by Pope Leo X in 1516. On 14th November 1516 the King commissioned him Inquisitor General of Aragon.

In his fifth Consistory for the creation of cardinals, on 1st July 1517, Pope Leo X (1513–21) named thirty-one cardinals among whom was Adrianus de Traiecto, naming him Cardinal Priest of the Basilica of Saints John and Paul on the Coelian Hill. During the minority of Charles V, Adriaan was named to serve with cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros as co-regent of Spain. After the death of Jimenez, Adriaan was appointed (14th March 1518) General of the Reunited Inquisitions of Castile and Aragon, in which capacity he acted until his departure for Rome. When Charles V left Spain for the Netherlands in 1520, he appointed cardinal Adriaan as regent of Spain, during which time he had to deal with the Revolt of the Comuneros (Castilians opposed to the rule of Charles).

In the conclave after the death of the Medici pope Leo X, Leo’s cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, was the leading candidate. With Spanish and French cardinals in a deadlock, the absent Adriaan was proposed as a compromise and on 9th January 1522 he was elected by an almost unanimous vote. Charles V was delighted upon hearing that his tutor had been elected to the papacy but soon realized that Adrian VI was determined to reign impartially. Francis I of France, who feared that Adrian would become a tool of the emperor, and had uttered threats of a schism, later relented and sent an embassy to present his homage.

Fears of a papacy located in Spain based on the strength of Adrian’s relationship with the emperor as his former tutor, and regent, proved baseless, and Adrian, having notified the College of Cardinals of his acceptance, left for Italy after six months of preparations and trying to decide which route to take, making his solemn entry into Rome on 29th August. He had forbidden elaborate decorations, and many people stayed away for fear of the plague that was raging. Pope Adrian VI was crowned at St. Peter’s Basilica on 31st August 1522, at the age of 63.

These were difficult times. Lutheranism was growing in the German states, Ottoman Turks controlled Belgrade and were threatening Hungary and Greece, the papal court was rife with corruption, and throughout Europe young princes were eager for war to expand their territories. Adrian had never been to Italy before he was elected pope and had little understanding of papal and European politics. One plan was to attack notorious abuses one by one within the church, but was hampered by his cardinals. He found, for example, that the reduction of the number of matrimonial dispensations (which brought in a lot of money) to be impossible, as the income had been farmed out for years in advance by Leo X.

Neither was Adrian successful as a peacemaker among Christian princes, whom he hoped to unite in a war against the Turks. In August 1523 he was forced into an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Venice against France. Meanwhile, in 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) had conquered Rhodes.

In his reaction to the early stages of the Lutheran revolt, Adrian did not completely understand the gravity of the situation. At the Diet of Nuremberg, which opened in December 1522, he was represented by Francesco Chieregati, whose private instructions contain the frank admission that the disorder of the Church was perhaps the fault of the Roman Curia itself, and that it should be reformed. However, Adrian, as former professor and Inquisitor General, was strongly opposed to any change in doctrine and demanded that Martin Luther be punished for teaching heresy.

He made only one cardinal in the course of his pontificate, Willem van Enckevoirt, made a cardinal-priest in a consistory held on September 10, 1523. Adrian VI held no beatifications in his pontificate but canonized Saints Antoninus of Florence and Benno of Meissen on 31st May 1523. Adrian VI died in Rome on 14th September 1523, after one year, eight months and six days as pope. Most of his official papers were lost after his death. He bequeathed property in the Low Countries for the foundation of a college at the University of Leuven that became known as Pope’s College.

Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen (1514), is the first cookbook published in Dutch. The recipes are suitable for today’s post both culturally and geographically, and I have a copy of the text in Dutch. I do not, however, have much skill in modern Dutch, let alone 16th century Dutch, so first I’ll give you a sampling of what I have been struggling with for the past few hours (cleaned up somewhat):

  1. Om te maken venisoen metten soppen

Om te maken venisoen metten soppen  Neemt venisoen dan snijt in reinen eerlijcken stucken ende elc  stuck dat suldi larderen met specke Dan suldijt doen sieden in eenen pot met vleessope op dat ghijs ghecrigen cont ende eest niet moghelijc om crigen so siedet in zijns selfs sop Dan neemt rooden wijn van den alder besten dye moghe lijck es om te ghecrighen. Neempt hier toe groffels naghelen ende greyne. Dit stoot ende minghelt met veriuys ende een luttele edicx oft azijns Dyt doet nu altesamen sieden doetter alsoe veel souts inne alst be hoeft oft van noode es Dit venisoen behoort te sijn van wilden swijnen

There are a ton of footnotes that I have omitted, although I took note of their contents. Very roughly translated – very roughly – I get:

47.To make wild game with sops

To make wild game with sops. Take game and cut it in pieces. Lard each piece with speck. Boil them in a pot with meat broth if you have any, and if that is not possible boil it in its own broth [which I take to mean, use water]. Use the best red wine you can get. Take cloves and grains of paradise; crush them and mix them with verjuice and a little vinegar. Now put this all to boil together Add salt to taste. The game should be wild boar.

The word “venisoen” here is best translated as “wild game” rather than as “venison” as the final sentence suggests.  I am not sure how to translate “soppen” — “in broth” maybe?  Otherwise, it’s close to northern French cooking of the time, as would be expected given that the duchy of Burgundy controlled much of the Dutch region at various times. Could be an archaic version of bœuf bourguignon.

Feb 282019

On this date in 202 BCE, Liu Bang was enthroned as the emperor Gaozu (漢高祖) of China, beginning four centuries of rule by the Han dynasty (with some breaks). Liu Bang was unusual as a dynastic founder in that he was born a peasant, although court historians eventually fudged his genealogy to make him a descendant of mythical royal ancestors (to give his rule divine legitimacy). I’ll give a brief outline of his life before spending rather longer on a critical historical feast. This is a food blog, don’t you know.

Liu Bang was born to a peasant family in Fenyu Village (枌榆社) in the state of Chu during the late years of the Warring States period. His parents’ names were not recorded; they were simply referred to as “Liu Taigong” (劉太公; lit. “Old Sir Liu”) and “Liu Ao” (劉媪; lit. “Old Madam Liu”). According to legend, before Liu Bang’s birth, his mother was caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a bridge. At that moment, lightning struck and the sky darkened. Liu Bang’s father went to fetch his wife home and saw a dragon hovering above her. She became pregnant and later gave birth to Liu Bang.

It was subsequently recorded that the young Liu Bang was outspoken, charismatic and of great generosity and forbearance. However, he enjoyed loafing, disliked reading, showed no interest in farming and manual labor and frequently ran into trouble with the law, hence his father often called him a “little rascal” for his lazy lifestyle. Liu Bang persisted in his idling ways and depended on his brother’s family for food and lodging. When he grew older, he became a good friend and live-in companion of a former retainer of Lord Xinling named Zhang Er ( 張耳), who, at the time, was the magistrate of the nearby Waihuang County. Liu Bang initially served as a minor patrol officer for the Qin dynasty in his home town Pei County, within the conquered state of Chu. With the First Emperor’s death and the Qin Empire’s subsequent political chaos, Liu Bang renounced his government position and became an anti-Qin rebel leader. He won the race against fellow rebel leader Xiang Yu to invade the Qin heartland and forced the surrender of the last Qin ruler in 206 BCE.

After the fall of the Qin, Xiang Yu, as the de facto chief of the rebel forces, divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms, and Liu Bang was forced to accept the poor and remote Bashu region (parts of present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) with the title “King of Han” ( 漢王). Within the year, Liu Bang broke out with his army and conquered the Three Qins, starting a civil war known as the Chu–Han Contention as various forces battled for supremacy over China.

In 202 BCE, Liu Bang emerged victorious following the Battle of Gaixia, unified most of China under his control, and established the Han dynasty with himself as the founding emperor. During his reign, Liu Bang reduced taxes and corvée, promoted Confucianism, and suppressed revolts by the lords of non-Liu vassal states, among many other actions. He also initiated the policy of heqin to maintain a de jure peace between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu after losing the Battle of Baideng in 200 BCE. He died in 195 BCE and was succeeded by his son, Liu Ying.

Now the feast. In 208 BCE, during the reign of Qin Er Shi, Liu Bang (fortunes on the rise) was granted the title “Marquis of Wu’an” (武安侯) by the king and tasked with leading an army to attack Qin. The king promised that whoever entered Guanzhong (the heartland of Qin) first would receive the title “King of Guanzhong”. In 206 BCE, Liu Bang beat Xiang Yu in the race to Guanzhong and arrived in Xianyang, the Qin capital. Ziying, the last Qin ruler, surrendered to Liu Bang and ended the Qin dynasty. Liu Bang then issued strict orders to his men, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. Peace and stability were temporarily restored in Xianyang while Liu Bang’s forces were stationed there.

Xiang Yu was furious that Liu Bang had beaten him in the race to Guanzhong. Instigated by his advisor Fan Zeng and Cao Wushang (曹無傷), an informer from Liu Bang’s camp, he decided to set a trap to kill Liu Bang. He pretended to invite Liu Bang to a banquet, while secretly planning to assassinate Liu during the feast. However, Xiang Yu’s uncle, Xiang Bo, was a close friend of Liu Bang’s strategist Zhang Liang, and managed to persuade his nephew to not personally order Liu Bang’s execution on the feast. Frustrated by Xiang Yu’s indecisiveness, Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu’s cousin Xiang Zhuang to pretend performing a sword dance and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo volunteered to join the dance and blocked his nephew every time he thrust his sword towards Liu Bang.

Seeing Liu Bang was in mortal danger, Zhang Liang sneaked outside and summoned Liu Bang’s brother-in-law and personal bodyguard Fan Kuai, who then burst into the banquet area despite not being invited, dressed in full armor and armed with his sword and shield, interrupting the sword dance and glaring at Xiang Yu. Xiang Yu was impressed with Fan Kuai’s bravado and asked for his name, calling him a “brave warrior” (壯士). He ordered his men to give Fan Kuai a goblet of wine, which Fan gulped down. Xiang Yu then offered Fan Kuai a cut of meat (a pork shoulder). Fan Kuai placed the meat on his shield and used his sword to cut off chunks and eat. Xiang Yu was even more impressed and he asked Fan Kuai if he wanted more wine. Fan Kuai then made a lengthy speech about Liu Bang’s accomplishments, stating how it would be unjust for Xiang Yu to kill Liu, but also implicitly affirming that Liu would not challenge Xiang’s authority. Liu Bang then pretended to go to the latrine and used the chance to escape Xiang Yu’s camp unannounced.

In Chinese culture, the term Hong Men Yan (“Feast at Hong Gate”) is used figuratively to refer to a trap or a situation ostensibly joyous but in fact treacherous. Another idiom that relates to the event is Xiang Zhuang wu jian, yi zai Pei Gong (项庄舞剑,意在沛公) (literally: ‘Xiang Zhuang performing a sword dance, he is actually aiming at the Duke of Pei’), meaning that a person’s actions although looking innocent are intended to be a veiled attack on another person.

Certainly in honor of Fan Kuai’s actions a roast shoulder of pork would be suitable as a celebration. You realize that he cut it with his sword and ate it on his shield to show that he was not going to be fooled into putting his weapons down to eat. If you make roast pork it is not necessary to serve it on a shield, but it would work to enliven conversation. Otherwise, there are quite a few rudimentary recipes extant from the Han dynasty and I have given several already (in modern form). Here’s one more for pheasant. You can substitute chicken of course.

Pheasant Rolls


½ lb pheasant breast meat, shredded
½ teaspoon salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
3 shallots, peeled and minced
½ cup flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 egg white
vegetable oil


Put the pheasant meat in a colander. Boil two cups of water, and pour the water over the shredded meat. Drain and mix the meat with the salt, rice wine, and shallots. Form this mixture into eight long fingers and press them tightly together with dampened hands.

Mix the flour, cornstarch and egg white into a thick batter and set aside for ten minutes, then stir well.

Heat oil in a wok or deep pot to 350°F/175°C. Dip one of the meat fingers into the batter so that it is covered all over and then place it gently in the hot fat using a wire spatula. Turn the roll so that it cooks evenly on all sides, and remove with a slotted spoon when golden and drain on a wire rack. This can be done in two batches of four. Serve hot with the dipping sauce of your choice.

Feb 242019

Today is the birthday (1463) of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance nobleman and philosopher. Not a common household name these days, although his influence was (and is) wide ranging. Those with some historical knowledge remember him for the events of 1486, when, at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which some have called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” because it lays out the details of Renaissance humanism and of what has been called the “Hermetic Reformation”. He was the founder of the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, a key component of early modern Western esotericism. He is often called Mirandola which is more of a geographic designation (like da Vinci) than a family name, although his family owned the estate of Mirandola. His actual family name is Pico.

Pico had an exceptional memory as a child and was schooled in Latin and Greek at a very early age. He was intended for the Church by his mother and was named a papal protonotary (probably honorary) at the age of ten and in 1477 he went to Bologna to study canon law. At the sudden death of his mother three years later, Pico renounced canon law and began to study philosophy at the University of Ferrara. During a brief trip to Florence, he met Angelo Poliziano, the courtly poet Girolamo Benivieni, and probably the young Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. For the rest of his life he remained very close friends with all three. From 1480 to 1482, he continued his studies at the University of Padua, a major center of Aristotelianism in Italy. He studied Hebrew and Arabic in Padua with Elia del Medigo, a Jewish Averroist, and read Aramaic manuscripts with him as well. Del Medigo also translated Judaic manuscripts from Hebrew into Latin for Pico, as he would continue to do for a number of years. Pico also wrote sonnets in Latin and Italian which, because of the influence of Savonarola, he destroyed at the end of his life.

He spent the next four years either at home or visiting humanist centers elsewhere in Italy. In 1485, he traveled to the University of Paris, the most important centre in Europe for scholastic philosophy and theology, and a hotbed of secular Averroism. It was probably in Paris that Pico began his 900 Theses and conceived the idea of defending them in public debate. During this time two life-changing events occurred. The first was his return to Florence in November 1484 where he met Lorenzo de’ Medici and Marsilio Ficino and charmed both men. Lorenzo would support and protect Pico until his death in 1492. Without Lorenzo’s support, it is doubtful that Pico would have survived the Inquisition coming after him.

Soon after this stay in Florence, Pico was traveling on his way to Rome where he intended to publish his 900 Theses and prepare for a “congress” of scholars from all over Europe to debate them. Stopping in Arezzo he became embroiled in a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s cousins. It almost cost him his life. Giovanni attempted to run off with the woman, but he was caught, wounded and thrown into prison by her husband. He was released only upon the intervention of Lorenzo himself. The incident is representative of Pico’s audacious (perhaps reckless) temperament and of the loyalty and affection he nevertheless could inspire.

Pico spent several months in Perugia and nearby Fratta, recovering from his injuries. It was there, as he wrote to Ficino, that “divine Providence … caused certain books to fall into my hands. They are Chaldean books … of Esdras, of Zoroaster and of Melchior, oracles of the magi, which contain a brief and dry interpretation of Chaldean philosophy, but full of mystery.” It was also in Perugia that Pico was introduced to the mystical Hebrew Kabbalah, which fascinated him, as did the late classical Hermetic writers, such as Hermes Trismegistus. The Kabbalah and Hermetica were thought in Pico’s time to be as ancient as the Hebrew Testament. The most original of his 900 theses concerned the Kaballah. As a result, he became the founder of the tradition known as Christian Kabbalah, which went on to be a central part of early modern Western esotericism. Pico’s approach to different philosophies was one of extreme syncretism, placing them in parallel rather than attempting to describe a developmental history.

Pico based his ideas chiefly on Plato, as did his teacher, Marsilio Ficino, but retained a deep respect for Aristotle. Although he was a product of the studia humanitatis, Pico was constitutionally an eclectic, and in some respects he represented a reaction against the exaggerations of pure humanism, defending what he believed to be the best of the medieval and Islamic commentators, such as Averroes and Avicenna, on Aristotle in a famous long letter to Ermolao Barbaro in 1485. It was always Pico’s aim to reconcile the schools of Plato and Aristotle since he believed they used different words to express the same concepts. It was perhaps, for this reason, his friends called him “Princeps Concordiae”, or “Prince of Harmony” (a pun on Prince of Concordia, one of his family’s holdings). Similarly, Pico believed that an educated person should also study the Hebrew and Talmudic sources, and the Hermetics, because he thought they represented the same concept of God that is seen in Hebrew scripture, but in different words.

He finished his Oration on the Dignity of Man to accompany his 900 Theses and traveled to Rome to continue his plan to defend them. He had them published together in December 1486 as Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae, and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly. He wanted the debate to begin on 6th January (the Christian feast of Epiphany celebrating the introduction of the Christ child to the pagan world). After emerging victorious at the culmination of the debate, Pico imagined some kind of new (perhaps apocalyptic) epiphany when all the world would be convinced of the correctness of his conclusions.

In February 1487, Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate, and established a commission to review the orthodoxy of the 900 Theses. Although Pico answered the charges against them, 13 of them were condemned. Pico agreed in writing to retract them, but he did not change his mind about their validity. Eventually all 900 theses were condemned. He proceeded to write an apologia defending them, Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae comitis, published in 1489, which he dedicated to his patron, Lorenzo. When the pope was apprised of the circulation of this manuscript, he set up an inquisitorial tribunal, forcing Pico to renounce the Apologia, in addition to his condemned theses, which he agreed to do. The pope condemned 900 Theses as:

In part heretical, in part the flower of heresy; several are scandalous and offensive to pious ears; most do nothing but reproduce the errors of pagan philosophers… others are capable of inflaming the impertinence of the Jews; a number of them, finally, under the pretext of ‘natural philosophy’, favor arts [i.e., magic] that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race.

This was the first time that a printed book had been banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. Pico fled to France in 1488, where he was arrested by Philip II, duke of Savoy, at the demand of the papal nuncios, and imprisoned at Vincennes. Through the intercession of several Italian princes – all instigated by Lorenzo de’ Medici – king Charles VIII had him released, and the pope was persuaded to allow Pico to move to Florence and to live under Lorenzo’s protection. But he was not cleared of the papal censures and restrictions until 1493, after the accession of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) to the papacy.

The experience deeply shook Pico. He reconciled with Savonarola, who remained a very close friend. It was at Pico’s persuasion that Lorenzo invited Savonarola to Florence. But Pico never renounced his syncretist convictions. He settled in a villa near Fiesole prepared for him by Lorenzo, where he wrote and published the Heptaplus id est de Dei creatoris opere (1489) and De Ente et Uno (Of Being and Unity), (1491). It was here that he also wrote his other most celebrated work, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Predictive Astrology), which was not published until after his death. In it, Pico acidly condemned the deterministic practices of the astrologers of his day.

After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in 1492, Pico moved to Ferrara, although he continued to visit Florence. In Florence, political instability gave rise to the increasing influence of Savonarola, whose reactionary opposition to Renaissance expansion and style had already brought about conflict with the Medici family (they eventually were expelled from Florence) and would lead to the wholesale destruction of books and paintings. Nevertheless, Pico became a follower of Savonarola. Determined to become a monk, he dismissed his former interest in Egyptian and Chaldean texts, destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune.

In 1494, at the age of 31, Pico was poisoned under mysterious circumstances along with his friend Angelo Poliziano. It was rumored that his own secretary had poisoned him because Pico had become too close to Savonarola. He was interred together with Girolamo Benivieni at the church of San Marco in Florence, and Savonarola delivered the funeral oration. In 2007, the bodies of Poliziano and Pico were exhumed. Scientists under the supervision of Giorgio Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology from Bologna, attempted to determine the cause of the two men’s deaths using modern forensic technology. In February 2008 they announced their results, which showed that both Poliziano and Pico had died of arsenic poisoning, probably at the order of Lorenzo’s successor, Piero de’ Medici.

The aspect of Pico’s humanism that surely pissed off the powers-that-be in the Church, was his endlessly repeated mantra that humans can be whatever they choose to be – with or without God. That’s the quintessence of free will. I don’t know that peasants working on his family estate would exactly have agreed with him, but I don’t imagine that he was talking about them. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt and argue that he believed that with adequate training anyone could do anything, and the reason that peasants were stuck in old ways is that they had no opportunity for education.

I’ve given many 15th century recipes from Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino de Como. Here’s a simple one for fried slices of vegetable marrow (zucca in modern Italian), that is not so very different from contemporary recipes, except for the fennel and liquamen sauce.

Zucche Fritte

Togli de la zucche e nettale bene. Et dapoi tagliale per traverso in fette sottili come la costa d’un coltello. Et dapoi gli fa’trare solamente un boglio in acqua, et cacciale fore; et dapoi le poni a sciuttare. Et poneli de sopra un pocho pocho di sale et involtale in farina bella, et frigile in olio. Dapoi caciale fore et togli un pocho di fiore de finocchio, un pocho d’aglio et di mmollicha di pane; et pistali bene et distempera con agresto in modo che resti ben raro, et passa per la stamegnia, et getta questo tal sapore sopra le ditte zucche. Le quali etamdio son bone ponendogli solamente di sopra agresto, et fior di finocchio. Et se voi che’l ditto sapore sia giallo metevi un pocho di zafrano.

Fried Vegetable Marrow

Take marrows and clean them well. Slice them crosswise in slices as thin as the blade of a knife. Give them a quick boil in water, remove them, and let them to drain. Sprinkle them with a very small amount of salt, toss them in flour, and fry them in oil. Then remove them. Take a little fennel seed, a little garlic and the inside of a slice of bread; grind these together, mixed with a very little verjuice. Pass this through a sieve and sprinkle this sauce on the marrow. They are also good seasoned only with verjuice and fennel seed. If you prefer the sauce to be yellow add a little saffron.