Apr 292017
 

Coincidence Day again. Today is the birthday of Lonnie Donegan (1931), Rod McKuen (1933), and  Willie Nelson (1933). Now . . . let me say at the outset that I am not really a fan of any of them, but they all made waves in their own way, and each represents a strand of music that was popular in certain circles at one time or another.  I’ll go in chronological order, and apologize at the outset for brevity.

Lonnie Donegan, born Anthony James Donegan, is the only one of the three who I have listened to more than casually over the years, not because I like his music, but because there was a time in my life when the radio was relentless, playing “My Old Man’s a Dustman” or “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” over and over and over. The most important thing to remember about Donegan is that he virtually single handedly created a skiffle style based on recordings from the US, gave the style a (slightly) British flavor, and popularized it to the extent that tens of thousands of British teens wanted to play it. Out of this fad grew the British pop scene of the 1960s. Donegan was the lynch pin of a musical revolution.

Donegan started his musical career as a guitarist and banjo player for jazz bands in his teens. While in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a “skiffle” break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer’s brother, Bill, taking the name from the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s from the US (American skiffle was an obscure form of country blues). With accompanying music produced by a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan sang classic songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This music proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with “John Henry” on the B-side. The 1954 version was released as a Ken Colyer Jazzmen record, and Donegan got nothing for it but his session fee. So he released it again in 1956 under his own name. It proved to be a colossal hit. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the US.

It was the success of this single and the lack of the need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship that set off the British skiffle craze. There were a few bands that enjoyed chart success in the skiffle craze but Donegan remained the king of skiffle. The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots, amateur movement, particularly popular among working class teens, who could buy or make cheap instruments and use their music to rebel against the drab austerity of post-war Britain.

It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were between 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. A great many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle in this period, some becoming leading figures in their respective fields. How about Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Mick Jagger, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Ashley Hutchings, Roger Daltrey, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke to hit the tip of the iceberg? The Beatles developed  directly out of John Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarrymen. Here’s a bootleg recording of the Quarrymen singing a cover of Donegan’s “Putting on the Style” on the day in 1957 when Lennon met Paul McCartney. It was #1 on the English charts at the time.

The Beatles still retained elements of skiffle when they first burst on the scene in 1962. I don’t believe that Donegan is ever given enough credit for the revolution he started.

At completely the opposite end of the spectrum is Rod McKuen who, despite being one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s, has had zero influence on music and poetry as far as I can tell. There is a simple reason for this: it is worthless. How he became so popular is a complete mystery to me. Here is an early live version of “Seasons in the Sun” from the 1960s. It is a translation of the Jacques Brel song, “Le Moribond”.

“Seasons in the Sun” is probably McKuen’s best known song, and it has been covered innumerable times. I have no idea why. I’m sure it works well enough in French for a Belgian audience. When I lived for a while in France in 1966 I heard no end of this kind of stuff, and watched movies in the same vein. I suppose it’s cultural.

I’ll give McKuen enormous credit for making a success out of a life with disastrous beginnings. He was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California and never knew his biological father who left his mother before he was born. He was sexually and physically abused by relatives, and raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic. McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11 and drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey.

To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. After dropping out of Oakland Technical High School prior to graduating in 1951, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion, and over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton’s band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.

In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. McKuen began to translate Brel’s work into English, which led to the song “If You Go Away” – an international pop-standard – based on Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” In 1978, after hearing of Brel’s death, McKuen was quoted as saying,

As friends and as musical collaborators we had traveled, toured and written – together and apart – the events of our lives as if they were songs, and I guess they were. When news of Jacques’ death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn’t have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together.

In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen’s poems were translated into eleven languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone. McKuen said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton. McKuen has sold over 60 million books and his song titles have sold over 100 million records. I cannot fathom why. The best I can make out is that his poetry and lyrics are simple and sentimental, and this appeals to a segment of the population. I am fully in accord with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Julia Keller when she wrote that his work “drives many people crazy. They find it silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class”

The third of our trio, Willie Nelson, is the only one still alive. I’d say he sits somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of musical impact: not minor, not huge. He started out as a fairly conventional Country singer-songwriter, but over the years has become rather eclectic, but always with a Country bent.  He was born and grew up in Texas, left to be raised by his grandparents after his mother and father left with other partners. His grandparents taught him some music and bought him a guitar when he was 6, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age 7, and when he was 9, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summers, the family picked cotton but Nelson disliked the job, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky-tonks from age 13, and continuing through high school.

After high school Nelson bounced around for a while, and in 1956, went from Fort Worth, Texas first to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Vancouver, Washington, where he found a job on KVAN hosting the show The Western Express, and became popular locally, while still doing live performances. During this time he started writing “Family Bible”. His inspiration for the song came from his grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, who would sing “Rock of Ages” and read from the Bible after supper. Nelson played the demo of the song that he had recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine for Mae Boren Axton after interviewing her on the show. Impressed by his songwriting, Axton recommended that he go to Nashville and dedicate himself to songwriting full-time. Nelson quit the job at the radio station after being denied a raise in 1957, moving first to Houston and then on to Nashville, joining a long line of aspiring singer-songwriters.

In Houston he sold the rights to “Family Bible” for some quick cash, and it was recorded by Claude Gray in 1959 and released in 1960. It was a modest hit, and, even though Nelson was not credited as the writer, its success persuaded him to move to Nashville, where the song gained him some attention.

Through the first half of the 1960s Nelson had only modest successes. Then he signed with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ol’ Opry. Although a step up, and his records consisted registered in the Top 25, they always lingered in the low 20s. By 1972 his ranch had burnt down, he had divorced his second wife, and RCA Victor was complaining about the lack of real hits from his records. So he decided to quit the music business and start over. He moved to Austin, Texas, where the burgeoning hippie music scene revived his interest as a singer. His popularity in Austin soared as he played his own brand of country music marked by country, folk and jazz influences. He was transforming into the hippie cowboy.

Nelson signed Neil Reshen as his manager to negotiate with RCA, who got the label to agree to end his contract upon repayment of US$14,000. Reshen eventually signed Nelson to Atlantic Records for $25,000 per year, where he became the label’s first country artist. He formed his backing band, The Family, and by February 1973, he was recording his acclaimed Shotgun Willie at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Shotgun Willie was released in May 1973 and earned excellent reviews. But it did not sell well. The album led Nelson to a new style and he later stated that Shotgun Willie had “cleared his throat”. His next release, Phases and Stages, released in 1974, was a concept album about a couple’s divorce, inspired by his own experience. Side one of the record is from the viewpoint of the woman, and side two is from the viewpoint of the man. The album included the hit single “Bloody Mary Morning.” The same year, he produced and starred in the pilot episode of PBS’s Austin City Limits. From that point on emerged the “Outlaw Country” Willie Nelson we now know.

This trio of singers does not exactly inspire me in the kitchen, not least because their musical ranges and geographic backgrounds are so diverse. The only thing that really ties them together is that they were all making a mark in the early 1960s. Most of what I remember of early 60s party food is rather wretched – cubes of cheese or salami on toothpicks, shrimp cocktail, and the like.  I’ll go with Chicken à la King since it was very popular at the time, and is not desperate. It’s a common standby if you have leftover chicken. It was actually invented some time in the 1880s, and recipes were available in standard cookbooks in the early 20th century. But it became a defining dish in the 1960s. It’s really quick to make. This recipe is my modification from Betty Crocker – which seems appropriate. A cover of a 1960s classic, if you will.

Chicken à la King

Ingredients

3 ½ oz butter
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
3 oz mushrooms, sliced
½ cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 ½ cups light cream
1 ½ cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
3 oz cooked peas
scallions, sliced (for garnish)

Instructions

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bell pepper and mushrooms. Sauté until they have softened a little.  Add the flour and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to blend the flour with the butter and continue to sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the broth and cream, whisking to make sure that the flour is combined with the liquids. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens. Add the chicken and peas, and heat through. Serve over noodles or plain boiled rice, garnished with scallions.

 

 

 

Apr 282017
 

Today is the birthday (1926) of Nelle Harper Lee who was known to friends and family as Nelle, but more widely known as Harper Lee, author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. I count her among some distinguished “one hit wonders” of the literary world, such as J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind). They all had odds and ends published in their lifetimes, but their most famous novels are far and away their signature works. Of all three only To Kill a Mockingbird interests me at all. I found Catcher in the Rye tedious, and could not finish Gone With the Wind. On the other hand, I found To Kill a Mockingbird mesmerizing: book and film. It’s possible that these interests of mine are a function of the time of my life when I read the books.  I was a young schoolteacher in England when I read Salinger and Mitchell, but I was a graduate student in anthropology in North Carolina when I tackled Harper Lee, so I was sensitized to the book’s themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, burst on the scene right at the time that the Civil Rights movement in the US was uncovering the blatant racism of the American South (not that other parts of the US were guiltless). Segregation, poverty, and injustice were the social norms throughout the South, but were unparalleled in Deep South states such as Alabama and Mississippi. To Kill a Mockingbird could be said to have been as instrumental in vitalizing sentiments towards Civil Rights in the U.S.in the 1960s as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a century earlier, in the movement to abolish slavery.  Mississippi did not get around to ratifying the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, until 2013 !!! Of course, it was a completely symbolic gesture because the Amendment was passed by enough states to make it law in 1865.  Rather surprisingly, of the 4 states that rejected ratification 2 were northern (New Jersey and Delaware) and 2 were Southern (Kentucky and Mississippi). Kentucky ratified in 1976 and Mississippi began the process in 1995.

The plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family and neighbors in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.  Truman Capote was a childhood friend and is the basis for the boy Dill in the book. The novel deals with the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s, as depicted through the eyes of two children, especially 6-year-old Scout Finch. The lead character, Atticus Finch, is still frequently upheld as an absolute model of honesty and integrity in the face of social injustice, not only by lawyers, but by the general public as a whole. Many people who knew him said that Gregory Peck was perfect to play the role in the movie, because he was the living embodiment of these values in his personal life.

Various federal laws passed in the 1960s, and afterwards, ended many of the overtly racist practices of Southern (and other) states, almost like a reprise of the Civil War a century earlier. But what was ended de jure continued de facto, and still continues, in many regions of the U.S. in full force. The 2016 presidential election highlighted this fact, which many open-minded people wanted to believe was a thing of the past, and which many closed-minded people did not want to acknowledge.  For this reason alone I would vote for To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the greatest 20th-century novels if not the greatest. It captures the spirit of its time perfectly, and represents ongoing realities across the U.S.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success both critically and as a publication. Yet, some critics treated it with some disdain, not because of the racial themes, but because they felt it had confusing themes: the unjust trial of an African-American man, on the one hand, and the narrative thread of the strange and reclusive “Boo” Radley, on the other. I don’t see this at all. The novel is a comprehensive view of the many complexities, involving race and class, among other things, of a rural Southern town in the 20th century. It is a small ethnography, in fiction, of the stark truth.

Some critics, including modern ones, object to the language, notable the use of the word “nigger.” People in the US are still frightened to say the word, even when all they are doing is quoting someone. Of course, actually using the word against someone is deeply offensive, but reporting what someone else said (perhaps indicating their racism), ought to be allowed. Instead EVERYONE in the media reports something like, “He used the N-word . . .” as if saying the word itself (even though you are reporting the speech of others), somehow includes you in its racism. Harper Lee used the word in the mouths of racists because it was true to life.  In 1966, Lee wrote a letter to the editor of the Richmond News Leader in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as “immoral literature” (not least because she used the word “nigger” 48 times). It is a priceless gem:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of the Richmond News Leader, started the Beadle Bumble fund to pay fines for victims of what he termed “despots on the bench” (named for a famous Dickens character). He built the fund using contributions from readers, and later used it to defend books as well as people. After the board in Richmond ordered schools to dispose of all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilpatrick wrote, “A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined.” In the name of the Beadle Bumble fund, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in, and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.

The book was turned into a movie in 1962 and was unfortunate to run up against Lawrence of Arabia for the Oscars that year, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Peter O’Toole had been nominated for Best Actor for his performance as T. E. Lawrence, but Peck won for Mockingbird. The movie also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is, indeed, a faithful rendering of the book in many important ways, and Harper Lee approved of its translation from book to film and consulted on the set.

The choice of black and white for the film, instead of the more popular color at the time, may have been a budgetary decision, but I think that it would have been ruined by color. It could also be said that black and white was the inherent message of the film (and book). Hands down the following clip is my favorite from the movie, and still brings tears to my eyes:

The film also marked the screen debut of Robert Duvall as Arthur “Boo” Radley, who before working on the film was a stage actor.

Just about every line of To Kill a Mockingbird is quotable. This is a very small sample of my numerous favorites, most obvious first:

Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.

Finding a recipe to celebrate Harper Lee is a piece of cake – literally. The book, especially in the opening chapters, is laden with references to food, but mentions of Lane cake are classic. Scout reports, “Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” “Shinny” is a slang term for liquor. Also, Miss Maudie bakes a Lane cake for Mr. Avery, who was severely injured in an attempt to put out a fire in her home. “Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week—he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”

Lane cake, also known as prize cake or Alabama Lane cake, is a bourbon-laden baked cake traditional in the American South. According to food historian Neil Ravenna, the inventor was Emma Rylander Lane, of Clayton, Alabama, who won first prize with it at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia. She called it “Prize Cake” when she self-published a cookbook, A Few Good Things to Eat in 1898. Her published recipe included raisins, pecans, and coconut, and called for the layers to be baked in pie tins lined with ungreased brown paper rather than in cake pans.

This recipe is from Emma Rylander Law, Mrs. Lane’s granddaughter, and was published in an article by Cecily Brownstone for the Associated Press on Dec. 19, 1967. I’ve edited it very slightly and added a recipe for boiled white frosting which is missing from the original.

Lane Cake

Cake

Ingredients

3 ¼ cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 1/6 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 egg whites
1 cup milk

Instructions

On wax paper sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add egg whites, in four additions, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Fold in flour mixture alternately with milk; begin and end with dry ingredients. Batter should be smooth but look slightly granular.

Turn into 4 ungreased 9-inch round layer-cake pans lined on the bottom with wax paper.

Bake in a 375-degree oven until edges shrink slightly from sides of pans and tops spring back when gently pressed with finger, or cake tester inserted in center comes out clean — about 20 minutes. Place pans on wire racks to cool for about 5 minutes.

Turn out on wire racks; remove wax paper; turn right side up; cool completely.

Put layers together (on a cake plate) with Lane Cake Filling, stacking carefully; do not spread filling over top. Cover top and sides with swirls of Boiled White Frosting.

Cover with a tent of foil or a cake cover; or cover tightly in a large deep bowl in tin box. Store in a cool place; if refrigerated, allow to stand at room temperature for half a day before serving because cake texture is best when cake is not served chilled

Filling

Ingredients

8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup seedless raisins, finely chopped
1 – 3 cup bourbon or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions

In a 2-quart saucepan, beat the egg yolks well; beat in sugar and butter. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until quite thick. Remove from heat; stir in raisins, bourbon and vanilla. Cool slightly; use as directed.

Boiled White Frosting

Ingredients

1 cup white sugar
⅓ cup water
1 tbsp light corn syrup
⅛ tsp salt
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar

Instructions

Combine sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt in a saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon to mix completely. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat without stirring until  it reaches 238 – 242˚F (114 – 117˚C), or will spin a long thread when a little is dropped from a spoon held above the pan (see HINTS tab on sugar).

It is best to use a mixer for this step. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff but still moist. Then pour the hot syrup slowly over the beaten egg whites while continuing to beat. Continue until the mixture is very fluffy, and will hold its shape. Add the vanilla and keep beating until blended. If the icing does not seem stiff enough, beat in 2 or 3 tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time until stiff enough to hold its shape. Spread immediately on your cake.

Apr 272017
 

Today is Freedom Day in South African, a national public holiday. It celebrates freedom from apartheid and commemorates the first post-apartheid elections held on this day in 1994. The elections were the first non-racial national elections where everyone of voting age (over 18) regardless of former racial designation, and including foreign citizens permanently resident in South Africa, were allowed to vote. Previously, under the apartheid regime, non-whites had only limited rights to vote.

On the first commemoration of the holiday, President Nelson Mandela addressed Parliament:

As dawn ushered in this day, the 27th of April 1994, few of us could suppress the welling of emotion, as we were reminded of the terrible past from which we come as a nation; the great possibilities that we now have; and the bright future that beckons us. And so we assemble here today, and in other parts of the country, to mark a historic day in the life of our nation. Wherever South Africans are across the globe, our hearts beat as one, as we renew our common loyalty to our country and our commitment to its future.

These are fine sentiments, of course, and we should all rejoice that apartheid was destroyed. HOW apartheid began and how it was ultimately set aside is fairly easy to document; WHY it ended is not so easy to explain. A codified system of racial stratification began to take form in South Africa under the Dutch Empire in the late 18th century, although informal segregation was present much earlier due to social cleavages between Dutch colonists and an ethnically diverse population which included slaves. With the rapid growth and industrialization of the British Cape Colony in the 19th century, racial policies and laws became increasingly rigid. Cape legislation that discriminated specifically against black Africans began appearing shortly before 1900. The policies of the Boer republics were also racially exclusive. The Transvaal constitution, for example, barred nonwhite participation in church and state.

The first apartheid law was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, followed closely by the Immorality Act of 1950, which made it illegal for most South African citizens to marry or pursue sexual relationships across racial lines. The Population Registration Act, 1950 classified all South Africans into one of four racial groups based on appearance, documented ancestry, socioeconomic status, and cultural lifestyle: “black”, “white”, “coloured”, and “Indian,” the last two of which included several sub-classifications. Places of residence were determined by racial classification. From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million nonwhite South Africans were removed from their homes, and forced into segregated neighborhoods, in one of the largest mass removals in modern history. Most of these targeted removals were intended to restrict the black population to ten designated “tribal homelands”, also known as bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government announced that relocated individuals would lose their South African citizenship as they were absorbed into the bantustans.

Apartheid sparked significant international as well as domestic opposition, resulting in some of the most influential global social movements of the 20th century. It was the target of frequent condemnation in the United Nations, and brought about an extensive arms and trade embargo on South Africa, as well as travel restrictions and limitations on participation in international events. During the 1970s and 1980s, internal resistance to apartheid became increasingly militant, prompting brutal crackdowns by the National Party administration and protracted sectarian violence that left thousands dead or in detention. Some reforms of the apartheid system were undertaken, including allowing for Indian and colored political representation in parliament, but, because of very limited involvement and power, these measures failed in appeasing most activist groups.

Between 1987 and 1993 the National Party entered into bilateral negotiations with the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid political movement, for ending segregation and introducing majority rule. In 1990, prominent ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela were released from detention,  and apartheid legislation was abolished in mid-1991, pending multiracial elections set for April 1994. Outside influences from the West were probably the biggest factors in the ending of apartheid. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Communist influence on nations in Europe left Western nations freer to turn their attention to apartheid and increasingly spoke out against it, encouraging a move towards democracy and self-determination.

From the 1960s, South Africa experienced economic growth second only to that of Japan. Trade with Western countries grew, and investment from the United States, France and Britain poured in. In 1974, resistance to apartheid was encouraged by Portugal’s withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola, after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. South African troops withdrew from Angola in early 1976 after failing to prevent the black MPLA from gaining power there. The Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith, signed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Harry Schwarz in 1974, enshrined the principles of peaceful transition of power and equality for all. Its purpose was to provide a blueprint for South Africa by consent and racial peace in a multi-racial society, stressing opportunity for all, consultation, the federal concept, and a Bill of Rights. It was the first of such agreements by acknowledged black and white political leaders in South Africa.

In 1978, the defense minister of the NP, Pieter Willem Botha, became Prime Minister. Botha’s white regime was worried about the Soviet Union helping revolutionaries in South Africa, and the economy had slowed down. The new government noted that it was spending too much money trying to maintain the segregated homelands that had been created for black ethnic groups, and the homelands were proving to be uneconomical. Nor was maintaining black people as a third class working well. Black labor remained vital to the economy, and illegal black labor unions were flourishing. Many black people remained too poor to make much of a contribution to the economy through their purchasing power – although they were more than 70 percent of the population. Botha’s regime was afraid that an antidote was needed to prevent the black population from being attracted to Communism.

In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid movements in the United States and Europe were gaining support for boycotts against South Africa, for the withdrawal of US firms from South Africa, and calls for the release of Mandela. South Africa was becoming an outlaw in the world community of nations. Investing in South Africa by US citizens and others began to dry up, and an active policy of disinvestment from South African businesses ensued.  By the early 1980s, Botha’s National Party government started to recognize the inevitability of reform of apartheid although was still largely resistant. Early reforms were driven by a combination of internal violence, international condemnation, changes within the National Party’s constituency, and changing demographics – whites constituted only 16 percent of the total population, in comparison to 20 percent fifty years earlier. I wouldn’t say that any one factor turned the tide, initiating the end of apartheid, but whenever I ask the question “Why?” in significant historical developments, “Money” always seems to be the answer.

Despite its many successes South Africa still has a significant urban, black, poor population.  In 2005 they coalesced into a group called Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for “Shack Dwellers”), also known as AbM or the red shirts, a shack-dwellers’ movement that campaigns against evictions and in favor of public housing. The movement grew out of a road blockade organized from the Kennedy Road shack settlement in the city of Durban in early 2005 and now also operates in the cities of Pietermaritzburg and in Cape Town. It is the largest shack dweller’s organization in South Africa and campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratize society from below.

The movement quickly had a considerable degree of success in stopping evictions and forced removals, winning the right for new shacks to be built as settlements expanded and in winning access to basic services. But for three years it was not able to win secure access to good urban land for quality housing. In late 2008 the then AbM President S’bu Zikode announced a deal with the eThekwini Municipality which would see services being provided to 14 settlements and tenure security and formal housing to three. The municipality confirmed this deal in February 2009. However, the movement has been involved in considerable conflict with the eThekwini Municipality and has undertaken numerous protests and legal actions against the city authorities. Its members have been beaten and many of its leaders arrested by the South African Police Service in Sydenham, Durban.

UnFreedom Day, dated to coincide with Freedom Day, was started by Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and has become a day of education in which films, discussions and performances play a major role. The purpose of the day is to demonstrate that the poor are still not free in South Africa. Abahlali uses the day to celebrate the growing strength of the movement’s struggle. Abahlali baseMjondolo now also marks the day in Cape Town and other communities and social movements such as some Anti-Eviction Campaign communities have participated in UnFreedom Day with Abahlali baseMjondolo and have also begun marking UnFreedom Day in their own communities.

In 2009 the South African police initially tried to ban the UnFreedom Day event held by Abahlali baseMjondolo, together with the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement, the Rural Network and the eMacambini Anti-Removal Committee (all of these movements supported the No Land! No House! No Vote! campaign) in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban. However the police ban was lifted, those who had been arrested were released and the event went ahead with a police helicopter circling low above the assembly. A number of popular musical groups performed at the event including the Dlamini King Brothers. It is vital to remember that the end of minority colonial rule, does not mark the end of poverty and discrimination – not in South Africa, and not in Africa as a whole.

South African cuisine is an eclectic mix of European and indigenous ingredients and techniques. I thought that a relatively cheap, but enjoyable, Zulu dish would be appropriate to celebrate the day. IsiJingi fits the bill, I believe. Westerners would probably serve it as a side dish, but for Zulus it is a main dish. It is traditional to use pumpkin, but you can use any winter squash.

IsiJingi

Ingredients

2lbs/ 1 kg pumpkin (or winter squash), peeled and cubed
2 cups/500ml whole milk
2 cups/500ml coarse cornmeal
2tbsp/30ml cream
1 tbsp/15ml butter
salt and white pepper

Instructions

Mix the milk with 2 cups of water. Cook the pumpkin in a large saucepan with the water and milk mixture until soft (30 to 40 minutes). Add the cornmeal and mix well with a wooden spoon. Simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes, stirring continuously, until the cornmeal is cooked. Add the cream, butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well, allowing the butter to melt into the pumpkin and cornmeal mixture. Serve hot.

 

Apr 262017
 

Today is celebrated in parts of Russia as Old Permic Alphabet Day. The Old Permic script (Komi: Важ Перым гижӧм), sometimes called the Abur or Anbur after the first two letters (an + bur), is an idiosyncratic adaptation of the Cyrillic script once used to write medieval Komi (Permic). It was created by St Stephen of Perm (Russian : Стефан Пермский, also spelled “Stephan”, Komi: Перымса Стефан, a 14th-century painter and missionary credited with the conversion of the Komi to Christianity and the establishment of the Bishopric of Perm. Because today is his saint’s day, it was chosen as the date to celebrate the alphabet he created.

Stephen was probably from the town of Ustiug. According to a church tradition, his mother was a Komi woman. Stephen took his monastic vows in Rostov, where he learned Greek and learned his trade as a copyist. In 1376, he traveled to lands along the Vychegda and Vym rivers, and it was there that he engaged in the conversion of the Zyriane (Komi peoples). Rather than imposing Latin or Church Slavonic on the indigenous populace, as all the contemporary missionaries did, Stephen learnt their language and traditions and worked out a distinct writing system for their use, creating the second oldest writing system for an Uralic language. Although his destruction of some non-Christian religious symbols earned him the wrath of some Permians, he became the first bishop of Perm, and was very popular.

Stephen’s conversion of the Vychegda Perm threatened the control that Novgorod had had over the region’s wealth and tribute payments, so in 1385, the Archbishop of Novgorod Aleksei (r. 1359-1388) sent a Novgorodian army to remove the new establishment. But the new bishopric, with the help of the city of Ustiug, was able to defeat it. In 1386, Stephan visited Novgorod, and the city and its archbishop formally acknowledged the new situation. Subsequently, the region’s tribute money went to Moscow. These events had immense repercussions for the future of northern Russia, and was one part of a larger trend which saw more and more of the Finnic North and its vital fur trade passing from the control of Novgorod to Moscow, and the general consolidation of Russia as a nation.

The Komi are a Uralic ethnic group whose homeland is around the basins of the Vychegda, Pechora and Kama rivers. They mostly live in the Komi Republic, Perm Krai, Murmansk Oblast, Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Federation. They belong to the Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric peoples, divided into eight sub-groups. Their northernmost sub-group is also known as the Komi-Izhemtsy (from the name of the river Izhma) or Iz’vataz. This group numbers 15,607 (2002 census). This group is distinct for its more traditional, strongly subsistence based economy which includes reindeer husbandry. Komi-Permyaks (125,235 people) live in Perm Krai and Kirov Oblast of Russia.

There have been at least three names for the Komis: Permyaks, Zyrians (Russian: пермяки, зыряне) and Komi, the last being the self-designation of the people. The name Permyaks firstly appeared in the 10th  century in Russian sources and came from the ancient name of the land between the Mezen River and Pechora River – Perm – often called “Great Perm” (Russian: Пермь Великая). There are several possible etymologies for the Russian term, but the most commonly accepted amounts to, “the back of beyond.” The name Komi is the endonym (a group’s name in its own language) for all groups of the peoples of the region. It was first recorded by ethnographers in the 18th century. It originates from the Finno-Ugric word meaning “man, human”: Komi kom, Udmurt kum, Mansi kom, kum, Khanty xum.

Komi is a member of the Uralic family of languages, sometimes called the Finno-Ugric family whose better known members are Finnish and Hungarian. Komi can be considered either a single language with several dialects, or a group of closely related languages, making up one of the two branches of the Permic branch of the Uralic family. The other Permic language is Udmurt, to which Komi is closely related.

Of the several Komi dialects or languages, two major varieties are recognized, closely related to one another: Komi-Zyrian, the largest group, serves as the literary basis within the Komi Republic; and Komi-Permyak (also called Permyak), spoken in Komi-Permyak Okrug, where it has literary status. A third variety, Komi-Yodzyak is spoken by the Komi to the north-west of Perm Krai and south of the Komi Republic.

The alphabet developed by Stephen of Perm shows some similarity to medieval Greek and Cyrillic. In the 16th century this alphabet was replaced by the Russian alphabet with certain modifications. In the 1920s, the language was written in Molodtsov alphabet, also derived from Cyrillic. In the 1930s it was switched to the Roman alphabet. In the 1940s the Komi alphabet was simply changed to the Russian alphabet, with the addition of І, і and Ӧ, ӧ. Letters particular to the Molodtsov alphabet include ԁ, ԃ, ԅ, ԇ, ԉ, ԋ, ԍ, ԏ, where the hooks represent palatalization.

I won’t stray into the technicalities of linguistics too much (and will be annoyingly simplistic for those who know the subject), but let’s talk a little about alphabets. When it comes to learning how to read and write, alphabets are the most basic way to represent sounds in writing, and are, therefore, the simplest to learn. At one end of the scale are pictograms, pictures representing basic ideas as in this photo:

Pictograms of this sort are independent of language, so they can be very useful, but they have limited linguistic utility. Next are logograms, such as Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphs, which use a symbol to represent a word or idea. They can be used to express complete thoughts, but in consequence are restricted in their language use. But the restriction is not total. Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible when spoken but both can use the same traditional Chinese characters, and speakers of either language can read them with equal fluency.  Even when the Japanese use Chinese characters to write Japanese (kanji) a Chinese speaker can understand the writing to a degree – not perfectly because Japanese has altered some characters.

Next along the line are syllabaries, which break the sounds of a language into syllables (often consonant + vowel) for writing. Many Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Burmese, now use syllabaries because they are simpler to learn than systems of characters. You may need to know a mere 40 characters in a syllabary to be literate, but in Chinese, for example, knowing 2,000 characters makes you barely literate; 10,000 is normal for educated readers. Scholars and bureaucrats in imperial China were expected to know around 50,000.

Alphabets simplify reading down to its most basic sounds, and some languages, such as Italian and Spanish, can be pronounced with reasonable accuracy, through reading out loud, by people who do not even know the languages as long as they know the relationship between letters and sounds. Sadly, English is not in this group because it has never had an academy to enforce basic (and simple to understand) rules, so that the jumbled history of the language is reflected in the convoluted spelling. If every language in the world used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), pronunciation of the written word would be a snap. You would not have to learn the whole alphabet, just the letters that represent the sounds of your own language. It’s never going to happen though, not least because a culture’s way of writing is a very basic aspect of its identity. Chinese, for example, can be written in Pinyin, which is based on the Roman alphabet, and makes reading quite simple. But it obscures the depth and complexity of meaning that Chinese characters convey, and Westernizes writing the language. Some Chinese use Pinyin on cell phones, but most smartphones nowadays can send in Chinese characters, which the Chinese prefer.

When Stephen developed an alphabet for the Komi his first intention was to develop literacy among the people so that they could read the Bible (which, of course, had to be translated into Komi). If you can’t write the language, you can’t translate anything into the language that is as long and complex as the Bible.

Komi cuisine is varied region by region. In the northern reindeer-herding and hunting areas, meat is eaten daily, but not in the more agricultural south, where fish holds a more important place on tables. Pigs and poultry are kept, but are eaten less often. The Komi are fond of baking fish pie (черинянь)” on festive family occasions. The highly popular “Fish Pie Festival” (Черинянь гаж) is held annually on the last Sunday of June in the village of Byzovaya, Pechora Raion. Komi fish pie is a lot like some fish pies that I make – a cooked fish mixture, topped with a mix of mashed potatoes and other vegetables that is baked. Here’s a fairly standard recipe which incorporates leeks into the potato topping: a real favorite of mine. The filling uses a mix of fresh and smoked fish which is delightful.

Komi Fish Pie

Ingredients

600ml milk
300ml heavy cream
450g white fish fillets
225g smoked fish fillets (haddock or cod)
3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and roughly chopped
100g butter, plus a little extra (as needed)
45g plain flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1kg floury potatoes, peeled and diced.
1 leek, washed well and thinly sliced (green and white parts)
75g melting cheese, coarsely grated
salt and pepper

Instructions

Put 450ml of the milk and the heavy cream into a large saucepan and bring to a low simmer (boiling will cause the mixture to rise and spill over the pan. Add the white and smoked fish and cook gently for 5-6 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through. Don’t overcook. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the liquid and let it cool slightly on a platter. Strain the liquid and let it cool.

Using a fork or wooden spoon, break the fish into large flakes, and discard any skin and bones. The smoked fish may need careful inspection for small bones, which you need to remove with tweezers. Spread the fish over the base of an ovenproof dish and scatter the chopped eggs over the top.

Melt 50g of the butter in a pan and make a blond roux with the flour, cooking and stirring, for about 1 minute. Take the pan from the heat and, using a whisk, gradually stir in the cooking liquid making sure there are no lumps remaining. Return to the heat and slowly bring back to a simmer, stirring all the time. Cook until the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Season to taste, stir in the parsley, and pour the sauce over the fish. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Boil the potatoes until they are soft enough to mash (25 to 35 minutes). Meanwhile, melt the remaining 50g butter in a skillet, add the sliced leek and cook gently until tender.

Drain the potatoes and mash them. How smooth you want them is up to you. I usually leave them a bit lumpy, but this is cook’s choice. You can also add a little butter as you mash, if you like. Stir in the leeks with their butter and the cheese. Season to taste, and spread over the top of the fish in an even layer.

Preheat the oven to 400˚F/200˚C. Dot the top with a little butter, and bake until the potato topping is crisp and golden, by which time the filling will be heated through and bubbling (15 to 20 minutes).

 

Apr 242017
 

Today is the eve of the feast of St Mark. You’ll find my post on the feast day here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-mark/  The eve of church feasts were often fasting days (esp. Christmas Eve and Easter Eve), and in the case of many saints’ days the eve was a time of prognostication. The eve of St Agnes, for example, was the time for girls to peek into the future to see who their husbands would be (immortalized by John Keats http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-agnes/ ), but the eve of St Mark in England was much darker. I’ll get into that in a second. Let me take a moment beforehand to talk about the word “eve” because people get confused by it sometimes.

The word “eve” is a shortened form of “even” in Middle English, and in the early 13th century it was more or less synonymous with the modern “evening” (which is actually an older word, going back to Old English, and with similar etymology).  By the late 13th century “eve” and “evening” had generally parted ways, with “evening” mostly having the modern meaning, and “eve” being reserved for “the day before” (and also, “on the brink of”). The thing is that the eve of a feast is the whole day before, not just the evening before. Saying something like, “Christmas Eve day” is redundant. Nevertheless it is the actual evening of the eve of a feast that tends to be important, especially for prognostication.

Various sources will tell you that it was the custom in villages in England, from the 17th century to the late 19th century, to sit in the church porch on St. Mark’s Eve. According these sources you had to keep silent between the bell tolling at 11.00 p.m. until the bell struck 1.00 a.m. (some sources say that you had to do this 3 years in a row). The belief was that the ghosts of those to die in the parish in the coming year would be seen passing into the church. I’m always skeptical concerning how widespread such “traditional” customs were because most of them are reported by 19th century antiquaries who were not very careful about their source material, and often made wild, unsupported generalizations. The latter habit is, unfortunately, still with us, and many social historians fall prey to it. There are scattered reports of the custom throughout England, but most come from northern and western counties (notably Yorkshire). Typical 19th century accounts go into detail about supposedly true tales of people seeing ghosts following this custom, and then, lo and behold, the people seen as ghosts entering the church died in the year to come. You don’t get a lot of stories of people keeping vigil and NOTHING HAPPENED.

Some accounts of the custom state that the watchers must be fasting, or must circle the church before taking up position. The ghosts of those who were to die soon would be the first observed, while those who would almost see out the year would not be witnessed until almost 1.00 a.m. Other variations of the superstition say that the watchers would see headless or rotting corpses, or coffins approaching.

Another, much less documented, tradition holds that a young woman can see the face of her future husband appear on her smock by holding it before the fire on St Mark’s Eve.

In February 1819 Keats began writing “The Eve of St Mark.” 1819 was quite a year for Keats. He wrote his 6 most famous odes that year, including my personal favorite: “To Autumn.” It was also the year that he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes.” In many ways 1819 was the year when Keats sealed his fame in perpetuity; he had really only been a recognized poet for a couple of years at that point. He spent the year with a deep sense of foreboding that he would die within 3 years, which proved to be entirely accurate. He died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821 at the age of 25. “The Eve of St Mark” is one of his lesser known poems, mostly because he never finished it. It seems to have been inspired by the idea of sitting up late in the churchyard on St Mark’s Eve although this custom is not specifically referred to in the poem. Instead it tells of a woman, Bertha, sitting up late, reading about St Mark. It is filled with gloomy images but because it is not finished, there’s really no sense of where he was going with it. I’ve appended the existing fragment after today’s recipe.

The Eve of St Mark is also a 1942 play by Maxwell Anderson set during World War II. It later became a 1944 film by 20th Century Fox that featured some of the same actors who reprised their stage roles in the film. I’m not entirely sure what relationship there is between the title and the play’s plot. There is a strong mystical element of love and death that conjures up the old customs, and Keats’ imagery.

The central character of the play/movie is Quizz West who joins the United States Army in late 1940 before the US enters the war. Prior to being shipped out first to San Francisco, then the Philippines, Quizz and his hometown girlfriend Janet discuss their future plans. When the US enters the war, Quizz and his friends are in the Philippines where they man a coastal artillery gun against overwhelming odds. When things become desperate Quizz communicates with his mother and Janet through dreams, where he asks them whether he and his friends should stay with their gun to sacrifice themselves by covering the withdrawing US troops or leave by boat for a chance of survival. The movie version is here. I won’t spoil it for you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtBZq9hvQ-Y

It’s a real period piece, although, unlike many contemporary war movies it does not glorify war.  You’ll also recognize Vincent Price and Michael O’Shea if your hair is grey enough.

Given that St Mark’s Eve churchyard customs are best attested in Yorkshire, a Yorkshire recipe is in order. Of course you can make Yorkshire pudding, or chomp down on some Wensleydale cheese, but you might find Yorkshire curd tart a bit more enjoyable and unusual. The rosewater is what makes it. You might be able to buy curds for the tart, but making them yourself is not a problem. Make them the night before.

Put 2½ pints/ 1.2L of whole milk in a large non-reactive saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until it almost comes to a boil. Add the juice of one lemon, and gently stir over very low heat.  The curds will start to form. Do not stir too quickly or you will break up the curds. When the curds and whey are visibly distinct, remove from the heat and let the curds cool in the whey. Place the cooled curds and whey in a large sieve lined with muslin or a double layer of cheese cloth over a bowl, and let the curds drain overnight. Save the whey for making scones.

If you are lazy, like me, you can use a prepared tart shell. For some reason I can make pasta from scratch with no effort, but balk at making pastry. It’s your St Mark’s Eve mystery to figure out why. The pastry recipe I give here is a traditional one for the tart.

 

Yorkshire Curd Tart

Ingredients

Pastry

4½ oz/125 gm plain flour
½ oz/12 gm finely ground almonds
4½ oz/125 gm butter
1½ oz/42 gm powdered sugar
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp milk

Filling

6 oz/150 gm curd
1 egg
2 oz/62 gm  caster sugar
1 oz/30 gm currants
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
1 tbsp  rosewater
½ oz/12g melted butter

Instructions

First make the pastry. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl or a food processor, and add the ground almonds.  Add the butter and either pulse it in the processor to make a mixture resembling coarse sand, or rub in the butter with your fingertips.  Sift in the icing sugar, add grated lemon rind and mix everything together. Dump out on to a rolling board.  Punch down the center of the flour mix. Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and pour them into the center of the dry ingredients.  Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet ones with your hands until the mass just comes together. Knead gently to make a smooth dough.  Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Lightly butter a 9”/22cm shallow tart tin.  Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface and line the tin with it.  Prick the base with a fork several times and rest in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 395˚F/200˚C.  Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes.  Remove the baking beans and paper, turn down the oven to 355˚F/180˚C (160C fan oven) and return the tart to the oven for another 4-5 minutes to fully cook the base.

To make the filling, mix the curd with the currants, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon rind and rosewater.  Beat the egg with the sugar then add to the curd mixture along with the cooled melted butter.  Pour into the pastry case and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the filling set.

The Eve of St. Mark

John Keats

 

Upon a sabbath day it fell,

Twice holy was the sabbath bell

That call’d the folk to evening prayer—

The City streets were clean and fair

From wholesome drench of April rains

And on the western window panes

The chilly sunset faintly told

Of unmatur’d green vallies cold,

Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,

Of rivers new with springtide sedge,

Of primroses by shelter’d rills

And daisies on the aguish hills—

Twice holy was the sabbath bell:

The silent Streets were crowded well

With staid and pious companies

Warm from their fire-side orat’ries

And moving with demurest air

To even song and vesper prayer.

Each arched porch and entry low

Was fill’d with patient folk and slow,

With whispers hush, and shuffling feet

While play’d the organ loud and sweet—

 

The Bells had ceas’d, the prayers begun

And Bertha had not yet half done:

A curious volume patch’d and torn,

That all day long from earliest morn

Had taken captive her two eyes

Among its golden broideries—

Perplex’d her with a thousand things—

The Stars of heaven and angels’ wings,

Martyrs in a fiery blaze—

Azure saints in silver rays,

Moses’ breastplate, and the seven

Candlesticks John saw in heaven—

The winged Lion of St. Mark

And the covenantal Ark

With its many mysteries,

Cherubim and golden Mice.

 

Bertha was a maiden fair

Dwelling in the old Minster-square;

From her fireside she could see

Sidelong its rich antiquity—

Far as the Bishop’s garden wall

Where Sycamores and elm trees tall

Full-leav’d the forest had outstript—

By no sharp north wind ever nipt

So shelter’d by the mighty pile—

Bertha arose and read awhile

With forehead ‘gainst the window-pane—

Again she tried and then again

Until the dusk eve left her dark

Upon the Legend of St. Mark.

From plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin

She lifted up her soft warm chin,

With aching neck and swimming eyes

And daz’d with saintly imageries.

 

All was gloom, and silent all,

Save now and then the still footfall

Of one returning townwards late—

Past the echoing minster gate—

The clamorous daws that all the day

Above tree tops and towers play

Pair by pair had gone to rest,

Each in its ancient belfry nest

Where asleep they fall betimes

To musick of the drowsy chimes,

All was silent—all was gloom

Abroad and in the homely room—

Down she sat, poor cheated soul

And struck a Lamp from the dismal coal,

Leaned forward, with bright drooping hair

And slant book full against the glare.

Her shadow in uneasy guise

hover’d about a giant size

On ceilingbeam and old oak chair,

The Parrot’s cage and panel square

And the warm angled winter screen

On which were many monsters seen

Call’d Doves of Siam, Lima Mice

And legless birds of Paradise,

Macaw, and tender av’davat

And silken-furr’d angora cat—

Untir’d she read; her shadow still

Glower’d about as it would fill

The room with wildest forms and shades,

As though some ghostly Queen of spades

Had come to mock behind her back—

And dance, and ruffle her garments black.

Untir’d she read the Legend page

Of holy Mark from youth to age,

On Land, on Seas, in pagan-chains,

Rejoicing for his many pains—

Sometimes the learned Eremite

With golden star, or dagger bright

Referr’d to pious poesies

Written in smallest crowquill size

Beneath the text; and thus the rhyme

Was parcell’d out from time to time:

—’Als writith he of swevenis

Men han beforne they wake in bliss,

Whanne that hir friendes thinke hem bound

In crimped shroude farre under grounde;

And how a litling child mote be

A saint er its nativitie,

Gif that the modre (god her blesse)

Kepen in solitarinesse,

And kissen devoute the holy croce.

Of Goddis love and Sathan’s force

He writith; and thinges many mo:

Of swiche thinges I may not shew;.

Bot I must tellen verilie

Somdel of Saintè Cicilie;

And chieftie what he auctorethe

Of Saintè Markis life and dethe.’

 

At length her constant eyelids come

Upon the fervent Martyrdom;

Then lastly to his holy shrine

Exalt amid the tapers’ shine

At Venice—

 

 

Apr 232017
 

Today is the first Sunday after Easter, which goes by a wide variety of names depending on ecclesiastical tradition. In Catholic and some Eastern traditions it marks the end of Bright Week during which the resurrection of Jesus is constantly celebrated. In some of those traditions it is called Renewal Sunday, referring to the continual affirmation of the Easter message. It is also called Quasimodo Sunday in some denominations, especially in parts of France and Germany, the name being taken from the day’s introit: — “Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite” (“In the same way that newborn babies long for pure milk”).

In the early church, catechumens were baptized on the Eve of Easter, and on the Sunday following Easter they cast off their white baptismal robes – yet they were still spiritual newborns (needing spiritual milk). In the Anglican tradition it is commonly called Low Sunday which is how I referred to it in church bulletins when I was a pastor. No one knows quite what “Low” refers to – possibly the feeling that the feeling of the celebration of the resurrection is not as great as it was on Easter Sunday. Pastors in general suggest that it refers to church attendance on that Sunday, which is always very low.

In many churches today is called Thomas Sunday following a standard reading of the day John 20:19-31. Here’s the relevant part of the reading:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I always preached on this passage because there is much more to it than meets the casual reader. First there are a few simple things to elucidate. The name Thomas (Koine Greek: Θωμᾶς) given for the apostle in the Greek Bible is derived from the Aramaic or Syriac: ܬܐܘܡܐ‎ Toma, equivalent to the Hebrew Teom, meaning “twin.” The equivalent term for twin in Greek is Δίδυμος Didymos. So verse 24 is a gloss, not an extension of his name. That is, he was not known as Thomas Didymos, but simply Thomas. A better translation of the verse would be, “Now Thomas . . . which means ‘Twin’ . . .” Giving glosses for Aramaic terms in Greek is very common in the gospels. Verse 26 says that “eight days later” the apostles were gathered again. This uses a standard method of counting days in Aramaic whereby the first and last days are counted. So, Sunday to Sunday is eight days, not seven as we normally count in English.

The crux of the passage for me lies in verses 27 and 28, and, I believe, is mistakenly represented in classic iconography.  Jesus says “Put your finger here . . . etc.” in verse 27 but verse 28 does NOT begin, “So Thomas put his finger in the wounds, and believed . . .” Thomas IMMEDIATELY answers “My Lord and my God.” He not only believes without touching Jesus, but he goes on to assert that Jesus is both his Lord and is God, going beyond the obvious inference that Jesus died and has returned alive. The resurrection was miraculous enough, but one need go no farther than accepting it as proof that Jesus, AS A MAN (only), was killed by the Romans but the grave could not hold him. That’s quite extraordinary enough, and is enough for the other gospel writers. John’s gospel goes a step beyond that inference because of John’s author’s basic belief that Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, setting up the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, in this gospel, Thomas is the first apostle to get the whole story straight. In many traditions, therefore, he is not referred to as “doubting” Thomas, even though at the outset he doubts the testimony of his fellow apostles. Rather, he is seen as a man of extraordinary insight and faith because he goes well beyond what his senses tell him.

Thomas is traditionally believed to have sailed to India in 52 CE to spread the Christian faith, and is believed to have landed at the port of Muziris, (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor in modern-day Kerala state) where there was a Jewish community at the time.He is believed by the St Thomas Christian tradition to have established Ezharappallikal or Seven and Half Churches in Kerala. These churches are at Kodungallur, Palayoor, Kottakkavu (Paravur), Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kollam, and Thiruvithamcode (half church). The 4th century Syriac Christian poet and scholar St Ephrem wrote:

It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.

Thomas is mostly known as the missionary to India through the Acts of Thomas, an early 3rd century work of unknown provenance. The Acts of Thomas connects his Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but Jesus appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.” But the Apostle still demurred, so Jesus overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he put himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. Thomas’ ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.

According to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was asked to build a palace for the king. However, he decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (154–223) reports that in his time there were Christian groups in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it. But at least by the year of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India comprising Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity. The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadeva, one of the rulers of a 1st-century dynasty in southern India.

According to the most ancient tradition of the Mar Thoma (“Church of Thomas”) congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he was killed in Mylapore near Madras. According to local tradition, Thomas was killed at St.Thomas Mount, near Chennai, in 72 CE and his body was interred in Mylapore. Numerous churches in India claim to possess his relics, and these remains have been moved a number of times.

  

How much of all of this can be taken is legitimate history is open to question. It was certainly quite feasible for Thomas to travel to India, but whether he did or not is another matter. Churches in Cornwall in England claim that both Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea traveled to England (Joseph bringing the Holy Grail with him), but these tales stretch credulity to the breaking point. On the other hand, a trip from the Mediterranean to India was not only possible, but was a regular trade route by sea. The question remains what would have prompted Thomas to make such a trip. The canonical Acts of the Apostles, while not utterly reliable as history gives an account of early evangelizing that accords well with the letters of Paul, who knew the apostles. The narrative in Acts suggests that the apostles, who had been devout Temple-worshipping Jews, were content to remain in Judah and work on proselytizing at home to the Jews, showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews, whereas Paul, already an itinerant Hellenized Jew, took it as his mission to travel widely outside of Judah, preaching first to Hellenized Jews throughout the Roman empire, and then to Gentiles.  All parties seemed happy with this state of affairs. It, therefore, seems unlikely that Thomas broke ranks and journeyed to India. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries numerous Christian churches sprang up across Europe and Asia and many desired bona fides that they were founded by apostles. Actually, what is astounding to me is that Christianity took firm hold so early in India – certainly by the 2nd century – whether or not Thomas was involved.

Whether or not we can trust the histories, Thomas is most decidedly linked to the region of Kerala, so a local recipe is in order. Kerala is known as the “Land of Spices” because it traded spices with Europe as well as with many ancient civilizations for millennia, the oldest historical records being trade accounts with the Sumerians from around 3000 BCE. Kerala’s cuisine is quite distinctive in India because of the large numbers of both Muslims and Christians living alongside Hindus. Hindus emphasize vegetarian dishes as well as chicken and fish, but Kerala’s large Thomas Christian population has no food restrictions, so meat dishes in the local style are common as well.

Rice and tapioca are the staple foods of Kerala. All lunches and dinners focus on them and they are served with side dishes that can be meat, fish, vegetables, or a mix of all three.A favorite festive dish of Kerala’s Thomas Christians is a well-seasoned chicken stew in coconut milk with cashews. Lamb and duck can replace chicken in the recipe. Coconuts grow in abundance in the region, and both coconut milk and grated coconut flesh are common ingredients and thickeners. Using whole, fresh spices is more traditional than using powdered ones. Sometimes I crush them a little with a mortar and pestle before the cooking process to help release the flavors. In Kerala this would normally be one side dish among many, along with condiments.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Ingredients

1 ½ lb /750 gm chicken with bones (cut into medium size pieces)
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 carrot, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp thinly julienned, fresh ginger
1 tbsp thinly sliced, garlic
2 or 3 green chiles, cut lengthwise
3 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cardamoms
3 whole cloves
1” cinnamon
3 bay leaves
2 star anise
4 curry leaves
4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup thick coconut milk
2 ½ cups thin coconut milk
8 cashews
salt to taste
1 tbsp coconut oil

Instructions

Heat the coconut oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Add the cardamom, cloves, whole peppercorn, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves and sauté gently for 1 minute.  Add the sliced onion, ginger, garlic, green chiles and curry leaves and sauté until the onion is translucent. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ingredients to a heavy-bottom saucepan.

Add the chicken pieces, cubed carrots, potatoes, thin coconut milk and salt to taste to the saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the chicken is tender (about 40 minutes).

Meanwhile cover the cashews with hot water and let soak for about 30 minutes. Place them with the water and the thick coconut milk in a food processor or blender, and blend to a smooth paste.

When the chicken is cooked add the cashew and coconut milk paste to the pot, and simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes until the sauce has thickened a little.

Heat the coconut left in the skillet over medium-high heat, add the sliced shallots and curry leaves, and sauté until they are golden. Add them to the stew, simmer an extra minute then serve in a bowl along with plain boiled basmati rice and flat bread.

 

 

Apr 222017
 

Today is the birthday of Isabella I (Ysabel I) of Castile (1451 – 1504). She married Ferdinand II of Aragon and their marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and unburdened the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with Ferdinand had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are well known for completing the Reconquista, ordering the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects under the legendary Spanish Inquisition, and for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage that led to the colonization of huge parts of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. The phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was coined to describe the Spanish empire under Isabella’s great-grandson, Felipe II, and inherited only much later by the British.

With many celebrated (larger than life) historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. I always ask my students the deathless question: “(Fill in the blank); ‘Good Thing’ or ‘Bad Thing’?” I’m stealing from 1066 And All That, of course, and on the surface it’s a silly question. History is not black and white. I’m asking them to give considered answers in the vein of, “On the one hand . . . . on the other hand . . .” Well what about Isabella? Good Thing or Bad Thing? Your answer probably depends on your ethnic origins. If you’re Hispanic you’ll probably lean in favor of Good Thing, if you’re Jewish, Indigenous American, or Moorish – not so much. The thing is that Isabella is a towering figure in world history. She was not only tough minded, independent, and politically astute, she was also the progenitor of numerous monarchs and dynasties.

The most famous living descendants of Isabella I (and Ferdinand II) are probably the current European monarchs. First of all, the Kings of Spain are descended from their union, with their current major dynastic heir being King Felipe VI of Spain. However, it is also the case that all the other monarchs currently reigning in Europe – King Albert II of Belgium, Grand-Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K., Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands – descend in some way or another from Isabella and Ferdinand. This is also true of the Sovereign Princes of Europe: Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. That’s leaving a pretty significant mark.

From the point of view of English history, Isabella’s daughter, Katherine, was first married to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and then, when he died, was remarried to his second son Henry who became Henry VIII. Henry’s divorce from Katherine was, of course, the immediate cause of the English Reformation, and the ascent of their daughter, Mary I, Isabella’s granddaughter, the precipitating event leading to the bloody Counter-Reformation in England. Mary married Isabella’s great-grandson Felipe II (Mary’s first cousin once removed) but they had no children, hence that bloodline vanished. It’s always struck me as a tad ethnocentric (or xenophobic) of English history text books that Felipe is rarely acknowledged as an ACTUAL king of England. Admittedly he was king by marriage, and his reign lasted only whilst Mary was alive. But he was king – not royal consort, like Victoria’s Albert, or royal hanger-on like the current Greek guy. He was genuinely king of England (jure uxoris), and tried to make the title stick after Mary’s death by launching the famous Armada which came to a well-known miserable end. The current Elizabeth II is descended from Isabella via a different bloodline. And . . . just to muddy the waters further, Isabella was a direct descendant of the kings of England (including king John) via John of Gaunt. Not much hybrid vigor in the bloodlines in those days.

Isabella was first betrothed to Ferdinand at the age of 6, but subsequent complex royal machinations scotched that deal as she was offered around to numerous princes until, as an adult and heir presumptive, she got a (wobbly) agreement from her brother, Henry, king of Castile at the time, that she would not be forced to marry against her will.  In 1468 after Isabella refused a marriage proposal from Alfonso V of Portugal (backed by brother Henry), Isabella made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon. On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was obtained. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI), Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed papal bull by Pius II (who had actually died in 1464), authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Afraid of opposition, Isabella eloped from the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. They were married immediately upon reuniting, on 19 October 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid. It was both a successful union politically, and, by all accounts, a happy one – although one never really knows about such things. I’d (modestly) characterize the marriage as an uncharacteristically (for the time) equal partnership. It’s vital to remember that this was an era of very powerful female rulers in a patriarchal world. Many men found this out to their peril.

You can catch up on Isabella’s numerous achievements in standard histories.  How about her personality? Here we must be careful not to be anachronistic. For starters, Isabella was short but stocky with a very fair complexion, and had a hair color that was between strawberry-blonde and auburn. Some portraits, however, show her as a brunette. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her devotion to Catholicism was the hallmark of her life. In spite of her political hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia, she developed a taste for Moorish decor and style.

Her contemporaries were more or less unanimous concerning her temperament. Andrés Bernáldez said, “She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises.” Hernando del Pulgar wrote, “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.” This is a telling quote. Obviously she was not an advocate of “the quality of mercy.” This point is echoed in the writings of     Lucio Marineo Sículo: “[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight.” There you go !!! Justice trumps mercy (even fiscal pragmatics). Quite the stalwart woman.

Here’s a recipe from a 15th century Catalan cookbook, Libre Del Coch by Mestre Robert. I know I’m being a bit free and easy with my regional recipe idea here. If I were an idiot I could claim that Catalonia is part of Spain these days, as is Castile and Aragon, and, therefore, this is an old “Spanish” recipe. I’m not that stupid. But Isabella’s marriage did lead to the unification of Spain, and when I look over historic recipes I see a great deal of overlap from region to region, not least because European royalty moved all over the place when they married and took their cooks and culinary ideas with them. At the aristocratic level, the household cuisines showed a great deal of homogeneity, with variations due in large part to the availability of ingredients. This recipe is for a casserole/stew of meat (probably lamb or mutton) with oranges. Bitter oranges were brought to Spain from China by the Moors and were (and are) prolific throughout Iberia. They are a common flavoring ingredient.  This kind of recipe is ancestral to a host of Spanish meat casseroles.

Naturally the recipe is completely vague as to quantity of ingredients, and even as to their precise nature. What do you make of “totes salses fines” for example? Fine herbs/spices? I’m thinking pepper, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice – the usual suspects. Medieval linguistic skills are not my strong suit to begin with, let alone interpreting vague instructions in the dialect (that seems to drift between Old French and Old Spanish). Agresta was a type of verjuice (unripe grape or apple juice) used as a strong acidifier (you’ll note that the recipe suggests vinegar as an alternative), intensified further by the orange juice. I’ve given translating a go. My translation is extremely loose partly because I don’t recognize all the vocabulary, and partly for ease of reading.

Casola de Carn

Pren la carn e talla-la menut a troços axf com una nou. E çoffregiràs-la ab bona grassa de carnsalada. E quant sia ben çoffredida, met hi de bon brou e vaja a coure en una casola. Emet-hi de totes salses fines e çaffra e un poch de such de toronge o agresta, de manera que coga molt bé, fins a tant que la carn se commence a desfer e que y romanga solament hun poch de brou, pendràs tres o quatre ous debatuts ab such de toronges o agresta. E met-ho dins en la cassola. E quant ton senyor se volrà aseure en taula, dona-li quatre o sinch voltes girades, e tantost se espessirà. E quant sia bé espès, leva-u del foch e fes escudelles e damunt cada una met-hi canyella.

Emperò alters són qui no.y volen metre ous ni salsa sinó sola canyella e girofle. E coguen en la carn, com dit he damunt.

E met-hi vinagre, perquè tinga sabor. E per lo semblant molts fan açò que us dire, que tota la carn posen en una peça farcida de canyella e girofle sencer y en lo brou ben picades les salses, emperò far a girar adés adés, perquèno coga més d’una part que d’altra e axf no.y cal metre sinó girofle e canyella, emperò com dit he de bona manera.

Meat Casserole

Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta, and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.

There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.

They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat has to be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon, as long as you follow the other directions correctly.

Have fun. When I get round to experimenting with this recipe I’ll do it in a big covered skillet on the stove top rather than in a casserole, because I have more control that way. Besides, even the word “casserole” gives me nightmares because as a teenager my mother used to make a week’s worth of casseroles on Sundays, because she got home late from work and did not have time to cook in the evenings, and my father, who was an excellent cook, never lifted a finger. I was just learning at that stage and might have contributed something if I had known what I was doing, and did not feel the constant need to play the indolent adolescent. No matter what went into each casserole they all came out the same – and all tasting a bit burnt from being in the oven too long. Scalded and burnt dish rag is about how I would describe the taste. Admittedly oven versus stove top is a tough call. Oven braising works well enough if you know what you are doing.

Apr 212017
 

Today is Grounation Day, an important day for the Rastafari, second only to Coronation Day (November 2). It is celebrated in honor of Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica.  When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, around 100,000 Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston. When his Ethiopian Airlines flight landed at the airport at 1:30 pm the crowd surrounded his plane on the tarmac. After about half an hour, the door swung open and the emperor appeared at the top of the mobile steps. A deafening tumult was heard from the crowd, who beat calabash drums, lit firecrackers, waved signs, and sounded Abeng horns. All protocol was dropped as the crowd pressed past the security forces and on to the red carpet that had been laid out for the reception. Selassie waved from the top of the steps and then returned into the plane. Finally Jamaican authorities asked Ras Mortimer Planno, a prominent Rasta leader, to climb the steps, enter the plane, and negotiate the Emperor’s descent. When Planno reemerged, he announced to the crowd: “The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land” After Planno escorted Selassie down the steps he refused to walk on the red carpet on the way to his limousine. Thus was born the term “grounation” a portmanteau of “foundation” and “ground,”  meaning something like “the spiritual leader (foundation) makes contact with the soil (ground).”

As a result of Planno’s actions, the Jamaican authorities were asked to ensure that Rastafari representatives were present at all state functions attended by Selassie, and Rastafari leaders, including Planno, also obtained a private audience with the Emperor, where he reportedly told them that they should not attempt to emigrate to Ethiopia (or Africa in general) until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.” Defying the expectations of the British colonial Jamaican authorities, Selassie never rebuked the Rastafari for their belief in him as the Messiah. Instead, he presented the movement’s faithful leaders with gold medallions bearing the Ethiopian seal – the only recipients of such an honor on this visit. Meanwhile, he presented some of the Jamaican politicians with miniature coffin-shaped cigarette boxes. So let’s explore what Rastafari is all about (in very little space – as always).

The word Rastafari comes from Haile Selassie’s birth name and title in Amharic: Ras (Chief) Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael. From the 1930s onward a movement, known as Rastafari, grew in Jamaica as a militant reaction to colonialism and former slavery, at one time advocating a return of the descendants of former slaves to Africa and revering Haile Selassie as the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. Outsiders define Rastafari as a religion, but devotees prefer to see it as a movement, although it has many of the hallmarks of a religion, with many features taken from Judaism and Christianity.  I see no point in quibbling about terminology.

Rastas use the Biblical term “Babylon” to describe the colonial forces of oppression, one major form of which is language itself. Thus suffixes, such as “-ism” and “-ian,” are seen as linguistic forms of limitation and control. I am wholly sympathetic with this agenda. Labels such as “Marxism” or “Freudian,” for example, are both limiting and misleading. I happen to like the word “Christian” when it is strictly applied, meaning “a person who strives in all ways to be Christ-like.” By this definition there are precious few Christians. In my opinion the word “Christian” should not be randomly applied to anyone who happens to go to a certain kind of church, but should have a clear and precise meaning. In this respect I am fully in accord with Rastas.  The trouble is that with or without suffixes, “Rastafari” and “Rasta” are labels and bring the limits of definition along with them.

It is fair to say that Rastafari has no rigid dogmas, but is rather a way of life with multiple paths. These ways include an emphasis on an Afro-centric worldview (replacing the desire for repatriation to Africa), eating unadulterated and unprocessed foods, smoking ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament, communal singing and chanting, belief in a single God – called Jah, and belief that Haile Selassie was the Second Coming of the Messiah. These paths are not all rigid. Not all Rastas smoke ganja for example. Some are strict vegans, while others eat meat. Early on Rastas realized that language can limit ways of thinking and developed a dialect of English which is now called Iyaric (a portmanteau of “I” and “Amharic”). The idea was to break away from standard English, the language of the colonial masters, and, since the former languages of African slaves had been lost, to create a new mode of speech that rejected the ideology of “Babylon.” “I,” signifying the empowered self, is of prime importance in Iyaric – hence the name.

In the first place, “I” can signify at least two meanings through “wordsound” (the power of sound in words). It can mean the self, but can also signify “high” (which is sounds like), not in the sense of high from ganja, but spiritually high. Here’s a very brief lexicon:

I replaces “me,” which is much more commonly used in Jamaican English than in standard English. Me is felt to turn the person into an object whereas, I emphasizes the subjective nature of an individual.

I and I (also spelled I&I, InI, or Ihi yahnh Ihi) is a complex term, referring to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. Rastafari scholar E. E. Cashmore says: “I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness. ‘I and I’ as being the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people in fact. I and I means that God is within all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man.” The term is often used in place of “you and I” or “we” among Rastafari, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah.

I-tal (like “vital”) is spiritually blessed food that has not touched modern chemicals and is served without preservatives, condiments, or salts. Alcohol, coffee, milk, and flavored beverages are generally viewed as not I-tal. Most Rastas follow the I-tal proscriptions generally, and many are vegetarians or vegans. Even meat-eating Rastas abstain from eating pork, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp (which coincides with the restrictions of Kashrut).

I-man is the inner person within each Rastafari believer.

Irie refers to positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good. This is a phonetic representation of “all right”.

Ites derived from English “heights”, means “joy” and also the colour “red”. It can also be short for “Israelites”.

Irator replaces “creator”, and Iration replaces “creation”.

Idren refers to the oneness of Rastafari and is used to describe one’s peers.

Itinually replaces continually. It has the everliving sense of I existing continuously.

Reggae developed out of the Rastafari movement, with its early lyrics expressing core Rasta values of militancy and freedom.  Here’s Bob Marley and the Melodians singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” which explores notions of slavery and alienation in a Biblical context. The song is dear to my heart because it was the first on a mix tape that I used every night 25 years ago to rock my son to sleep when he was an infant.

There are, of course, plenty of Rasta recipes exploiting I-tal food. Like Buddhist monks, Rastas don’t want to sacrifice taste and complexity just because they avoid certain ingredients. Many avoid red meat because of a belief that it rots inside the body, but fish is acceptable to some. Callaloo is a common Caribbean dish, ultimately deriving from West African cooking, that can be made from various leafy greens. In Jamaica amaranth leaves are the usual component. They are best if cooked fresh, but in the US I only ever found tinned callaloo, which is all right. The flavor is correct, but the greens are too mushy for my taste.

If you can get fresh amaranth leaves, take a bunch, cut off the tough part of the stems and roughly chop the  leaves. Soak and rinse them in fresh water for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and slice an onion and mince 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, and thinly slice a scotch bonnet pepper. Also de-seed and chop a tomato. In a large heavy skillet sauté  the onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent. Add the garlic and pepper and cook for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Then add the amaranth (with fresh water still clinging to the leaves) and the tomato. Mix well, cover and steam for about 10 minutes, or until the leaves are tender. Add a little water if necessary during the cooking process so that the pan does not dry out and scorch. Callaloo is often served in Jamaica with salt fish and plantains, but it can be used as a green vegetable accompaniment for any dish.

Apr 192017
 

Today marks the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the first engagements in the war for independence of the North American colonies of Great Britain. As ever, I’m not interested in hailing the battles per se, nor in offering detailed analysis of the battles.  There are plenty of other sources for that. I do want to point out 2 issues, however: one minor, one major.  First the minor one. July 4th 1776 is celebrated as Independence Day in the US, but celebrating independence on ONE DAY – especially that date – is beguiling in the extreme. The war for independence lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the fate of the colonies hung in the balance for most of that time. A simple declaration of independence was important politically, of course, but it did not do anything to further the actual cause of independence.  July 4th is a token and the year 1776 was no more, or less, important than any other year in the late 18th century for the United States. For me, 1791 is a far more important year in US history, which brings me to my major issue.

On 30th December 1791 George Washington informed Congress that Amendments 1 to 10 to the Constitution (of 12 proposed) had been ratified by the requisite number of states and were enshrined as the Bill of Rights. Of these 10 the 2nd is the one I want to focus on, and I do it on this date because it is pertinent to what happened at Lexington and Concord. The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston and marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen of its colonies on the mainland of British America.

In late 1774 the Suffolk Resolves were adopted to resist the enforcement of the alterations made to the Massachusetts colonial government by the British parliament following the Boston Tea Party. The colonial assembly responded by forming a Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The rebel government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy rebel military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the British expedition.

The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they broke apart into companies to search for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 400 militiamen engaged 100 regulars from three companies of the King’s troops at about 11:00 am, resulting in casualties on both sides. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of British forces in Concord.

The British forces began their return march to Boston after completing their search for military supplies, and more militiamen continued to arrive from neighboring towns. Gunfire erupted again between the two sides and continued throughout the day as the regulars marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Lt. Col. Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a future duke of Northumberland known as Earl Percy. The combined force, now of about 1,700 men, marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “Concord Hymn”, described the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge as the “shot heard round the world”.

The shot was, indeed, heard round the world. Peoples both in European colonies in the Americas, notably South America, and in European nations themselves, took heed and commenced armed struggles against their monarchic rulers that continued throughout the 19th century. The spirit of republicanism was born. Ironically, the British monarchy is one of the few to have survived into the 21st century but only in radically weakened form. The British monarch is now no more than a figurehead, although a vital one. The importance of Lexington and Concord for me lies in the fact that the North American rebellion was carried out by militias. This brings me back to the 2nd Amendment. Its full text reads:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

(click to enlarge)

Both the people of the US and the Supreme Court argue endlessly about the wording of the Amendment, but the intent seems quite clear to me. The initial clause about militias tends to be treated as a useless frill by those who want to walk around the streets armed to the teeth, but to my mind it is monumentally important. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were framed in the shadow of a war for independence that could not have begun without armed militias – as at Lexington and Concord. The 2nd Amendment was, in part, modelled on legislation enacted in Britain in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from a tempestuous period in English politics during which two issues were major sources of conflict: the authority of the King to govern without the consent of Parliament and the role of Catholics in a country that was becoming ever more Protestant. Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted the conditions that were codified in the Bill. One of the issues the Bill resolved was the authority of the King to disarm its subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm many Protestants, and had argued with Parliament over his desire to maintain a standing (i.e. permanent) army. The bill states that it is acting to restore “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that the English Bill of Rights created a new right to have arms, which developed out of a duty to have arms

I know, I know, this all gets murky quickly and I am not a lawyer. The Supreme Court goes over this ground repeatedly. Many argue that the “ancient right” to possess a weapon stems from the Right to Life which allows people the right to self defense, that is, the right to own a weapon to defend yourself against mortal attack. I get it. But the text of the 2nd Amendment is crystal clear. The right to bear arms exists in the context of militias raised to defend against tyranny. Furthermore, the Amendment speaks of the right to BEAR arms, not to OWN them. This is not some semantic quibble; it’s a critical point. There’s a vast difference between being able to go to a well-stocked armory in the town to pick up a weapon to assist a militia and having a private arsenal in one’s home. I won’t belabor the point. It’s been made numerous times before to no avail.  I’ll pick up pots and pans instead.

Prior to the Revolutionary War cookbooks in the North American  colonies were reprints of British originals such as Hannah Glasse’s  The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747, and reprinted numerous times. American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons was the first truly North American cookbook, using local ingredients, such as cornmeal, and recommending pearl ash (potassium carbonate) as a leavening ingredient for the first time in print. It is an important window into distinctively American cooking in the late 18th century. Recipes like this one amuse me greatly:

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.

Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

Sure, I’ll just hop out to the barn and milk Betsy into my cooking pot. Or . . . how about the quantities for puff pastry number 2?

Puff Pastes for Tarts.

No. 1. Rub one pound of butter into one pound of flour, whip 2 whites and add with cold water and one yolk; make into paste, roll in in six or seven times one pound of butter, flowring it each roll. This is good for any small thing.

No. 2. Rub six pound of butter into fourteen pound of flour, eight eggs, add cold water, make a stiff paste.

That’ll do the trick when I’m feeding a militia. You can dip into the whole text here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12815/pg12815-images.html It will give you plenty of ideas for a colonial dinner party. This recipe especially appeals to me because I think turkey and oysters go well together (even though I’m not a huge fan of cooked oysters):

To smother a Fowl in Oysters.

Fill the bird with dry Oysters, and sew up and boil in water just sufficient to cover the bird, salt and season to your taste—when done tender, put into a deep dish and pour over it a pint of stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered, garnish a turkey with sprigs of parsley or leaves of cellery: a fowl is best with a parsley sauce.

I can’t provide a modern recipe right now because I can’t get hold of either turkey or oysters at present. Oyster stuffing for roast turkey is still a staple in the rural South, but this recipe is more basic – just turkey and oysters. I’ll try it out when I get the chance.

Apr 182017
 

Today is celebrated in Russia as the Victory of the Novgorod Republic over the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of the Ice (Ледовое побоище), fought on 5th April 1242, largely on the frozen Lake Peipus. I don’t often commemorate battles on this blog, but I am making an exception here because this battle illuminates a part of European history that tends to get underplayed, or plain ignored, in modern consciousness, namely the general understanding of what the so-called Crusades were all about. The popular image of the Crusades, very poorly understood, is of Western Christian armies fighting Muslims in the Near East for control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, ostensibly to allow access by Christian pilgrims. This piece of the puzzle is only a very small part of the whole story. In a nutshell, with me being hopelessly simplistic as usual, the Crusades were an attempt by Western European powers to control Eastern Europe as well as the Near East using religion as their justification. In my cynical opinion the real motive was power and wealth. For me the only important question in history is WHY?  The answer is always the same – MONEY.

Although the Crusades are usually characterized in the Western mind as wars between Christians and Muslims, they were as much, if not more, wars between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox territories, as well as between Catholic forces and inhabitants of regions that are now, rather misleadingly, called “pagan” where pagan means not Jewish, not Christian, and not Muslim.  There was no pagan religion as such. The word is a catchall for numerous diverse religions outside those that are sometimes called the Religions of Abraham (because he is ancestral to all three) or Religions of the Book (i.e. the Torah which is common (sort of) to all three), that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The First Crusade arose after a call to arms in a 1095 sermon by Pope Urban II. Urban urged military support for the Byzantine Empire and its Emperor, Alexios I, who needed reinforcements for his conflict with westward migrating Turks who were colonizing Anatolia. One of Urban’s stated aims was to guarantee pilgrims access to the holy sites in the Eastern Mediterranean that were under Muslim control. Urban’s wider strategy may have been to unite the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom, which had been divided since their split in the East–West Schism of 1054, and establish himself as head of the unified Church. The response to Urban’s preaching by people of many different classes across Western Europe established the precedent for later Crusades, which, among other things, provided opportunities for economic and political gain.

The Crusaders’ behavior, under Papal sanction, was often deplorable. For example, Crusaders frequently pillaged as they travelled, while their leaders retained control of much captured territory rather than returning it to the Byzantines. During the People’s Crusade (1096) thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) rendering the reunification of Christendom impossible. Subsequently the Crusades actively attempted to capture regions that were under Eastern Orthodox control. The Battle on the Ice was part of this larger enterprise sometimes called the Northern Crusades.

The Northern Crusades or Baltic Crusades were religious wars primarily undertaken by Christian military orders and kingdoms against the Baltic, Finnic, and Slavic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The crusades took place mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries and resulted in the subjugation and forced baptism of indigenous peoples. The Teutonic Order’s attempts to conquer Orthodox Russia (particularly the Republics of Pskov and Novgorod), an enterprise endorsed by Pope Gregory IX, marked the tail end of the Northern Crusades. The Battle of the Ice in 1242 is usually considered to be the key turning point, although historians do not all agree concerning its importance.

Hoping to exploit Novgorod’s weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions, the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in autumn 1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky to the city, whom they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye from the Crusaders.

In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander’s forces by the narrow strait (Lake Lämmijärv or Teploe) that connects the north and south parts of Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe).

On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the  over-confident Crusaders on to the frozen lake. The crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totaling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.

The Teutonic knights and crusaders charged across the lake and reached the enemy, but were held up by the infantry of the Novgorod militia. This caused the momentum of the crusader attack to slow. The battle was fierce, with the allied Russians fighting the Teutonic and crusader troops on the frozen surface of the lake. After a little more than two hours of close quarters fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his army (including cavalry) to enter the battle. The Teutonic and crusader troops by that time were exhausted from the constant struggle on the slippery surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh Novgorod cavalry made them retreat in panic.

It is commonly said that “the Teutonic knights and crusaders attempted to rally and regroup at the far side of the lake, however, the thin ice began to give way and cracked under the weight of their heavy armor, and many knights and crusaders drowned”; but Donald Ostrowski in Alexander Nevskii’s “Battle on the Ice”: The Creation of a Legend contends that the part about the ice breaking and people drowning was a relatively recent embellishment to the original historical story. He cites a large number of scholars who have written about the battle, none of whom mention the ice breaking up or anyone drowning when discussing the battle on the ice. After analyzing all the sources Ostrowski concludes that the part about ice breaking and drowning appeared first in the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein. The day is particularly celebrated in Russia because it is commonly held, although disputed by historians, that the victory of Novgorod at the Battle on the Ice stopped further incursions into Russia by Crusaders.

There’s not much source material on uniquely Novgorod cooking of the Middle Ages. They ate cereals, such as oats, rye, wheat and barley as both bread and porridge primarily, with the addition of vegetables and meat on occasion, just as did all Slavs at the time. The common Russian word “kasha” which refers to buckwheat in the West, is just a general term for porridge in Russia, made from any cereal including rice.  I have already given a basic recipe for buckwheat kasha here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/yuris-night/  Let’s try something a bit heartier. I suggest kholodets, a common Slavic cold dish of shredded meat in gelatin made by boiling down meaty bones. I figured a cold dish was suitable to commemorate a battle that took place on ice. You can choose what meats you want, including pork, veal, beef, or chicken. A mixture is common. I like beef and veal.

You’ll need to start with 2 pounds of beef bones and a mix of stewing beef and veal. Place them in a large stock pot with a scrubbed, unpeeled onion, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, for at least 5 hours, skimming the scum from the pot as necessary. Remove the bones and onion from the broth, add what vegetables you would like as a garnish – one or two peeled carrots will do – plus seasonings that you prefer, such as garlic, salt and pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook for another 45 minutes. Remove the meat and vegetables, and strain the broth through fine muslin into a clean bowl. Shred the meat into small pieces and slice the vegetables.

You can use one big mould or several smaller ones for the finished dish. Lightly grease the moulds then lay some vegetable pieces at the bottom. Then add the shredded meat and fill up the moulds with the strained broth. Refrigerate overnight. In the morning the broth will have set up as a gelatin with some fat on top. Scrape off the fat, dip the moulds in hot water for a minute to release the jellied meat, place an inverted plate over each mould, turn it right side up and tap gently to release. If you have created enough gelatin from the bones they will come out clean.  Of course you can always cheat and add a little extra packaged gelatin during the final simmering to be on the safe side. I usually do. The onion skin will give the broth a brownish tinge. Some people use sliced boiled eggs rather than vegetables as the garnish. Your choice.