May 032019

At one time, this date was celebrated as Roodmas (from Old English “rood” (“cross”) plus Mass), a celebration of the discovery of the “true cross” on May 3 by saint Helena in Jerusalem in 355. I won’t spill a whole lot of ink over my thoughts about the “true cross,” that is, the actual cross that Jesus was crucified on. According to post-Nicene historians such as Socrates of Constantinople, the empress Helena, mother of emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, traveled to the Holy Land in 326–328, founding churches and establishing relief agencies for the poor. Historians Gelasius of Caesarea (d. 395) and Rufinus (344/45-411) claim that she discovered the hiding place of three crosses that were believed to have been used at the crucifixion of Jesus and of two thieves, St. Dismas and Gestas, executed with him. To one cross was affixed the titulus bearing Jesus’ name, but Helena was not sure until a miracle revealed that that cross was the true cross.

Many churches possess fragmentary remains that are by tradition alleged to be those of the true cross. Their authenticity is accepted by some denominations, mostly Catholic and Orthodox. I am with skeptical Protestants who find it beyond the realm of possibility, or even probability, that three crosses used to execute obscure criminals (among thousands) could have been preserved intact for three centuries, and fortuitously stumbled upon by a visiting pilgrim.

Roodmas originally commemorated the dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection and was linked with the finding of the Cross shortly thereafter. Although saint Helena reportedly found the Cross on May 3rd, 355, most Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rites now celebrate the Feast of the Cross on September 14th, commemorating the day in 628 when a piece of the Cross taken by the Persian empire was recovered by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. After the Gallican and Latin Rites were combined, the days were observed individually as the Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3) and the Triumph of the Cross (September 14). Some Protestant churches follow variants of this practice. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, for example, puts Roodmas on May 3rd.

In the Philippines, the Santacruzan—a ritual pageant commemorating the Finding of the True Cross—is still held in May because the custom originated in the pre-1960 Catholic observance of Roodmas on May 3rd. The celebrations typically carry over the whole month of May. In the Bicol Region, the ritual begins with the recitation of the rosary; the traditional “María” is said after the recitation of the Salve Regina in Spanish and the Litany of Loreto. Alabasyón (from the Spanish for “praising”) is the term for prayers sung in honor of the Holy Cross.

Bicol is also famous for a dish that is commonly called Bicol express, known natively in Bikol as sinilihan (lit. “spiced with chili”). It is a stew made from long chilies (siling mahaba in Tagalog), coconut milk, shrimp paste or stockfish, onion, pork, and garlic. It is said to have been inspired by the fiery Bicolano dish gulay na may lada, which is nowadays presented as one of the many variants of Bicol Express. Here’s your video:

Apr 302019

Today is the birthday (1896) of reverend Gary Davis, a blues and gospel singer whose fingerpicking guitar style influenced a great many artists. Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina. He was the only one of the eight children his mother bore, who survived to adulthood, becoming blind as an infant. He was poorly treated by his mother so that his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother. Davis reported that when he was 10 years old his father was killed in Birmingham, Alabama. He later said that he had been told that his father was shot by the Birmingham sheriff.

Davis starting teaching himself the guitar at age 6 and developed a unique multivoice style produced solely with his thumb and index finger, playing gospel, ragtime, and blues tunes along with traditional and original tunes in four-part harmony. In the mid-1920s, Davis migrated to Durham, North Carolina, a major center of African-American culture at the time. There he taught Blind Boy Fuller and collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene, including Bull City Red. In 1935, J. B. Long, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists, introduced Davis, Fuller, and Red to the American Record Company. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis’ career. During his time in Durham, he became a Christian, and in 1933, Davis was ordained as a Baptist minister in Washington, North Carolina. Following his conversion and especially his ordination, Davis preferred to play gospel music.

In the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline, and Davis moved to New York. In 1951, he recorded an oral history for the folklorist Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold (the wife of Alan Lomax).

The folk revival of the 1960s invigorated Davis’s career. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his version of “Samson and Delilah”, also known as “If I Had My Way”, a song by Blind Willie Johnson, which Davis had popularized. “Samson and Delilah” was also covered and credited to Davis by the Grateful Dead on the album Terrapin Station. The Dead also covered Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. Eric Von Schmidt credited Davis with three-quarters of Schmidt’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album for Columbia Records.

Davis died of a heart attack in May 1972, in Hammonton, New Jersey. He is buried in plot 68 of Rockville Cemetery, in Lynbrook, Long Island, New York.

Dinner-on-the-grounds, a potluck dinner after the last Sunday service or on a special occasion, is bedrock in North Carolina, Southern Baptist tradition. In every town and village there are renowned cooks, and someone’s potato salad will be talk of the town.  Potatoes, mayonnaise, and eggs are the normal key ingredients with any number of additional possibilities.  Here’s one of a thousand varieties:

Southern Potato Salad


3 ½ lb potatoes
6 hard-boiled large eggs, peeled
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup evaporated milk
3 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp prepared mustard
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper


Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and cool. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites, and set the yolks aside. Chop the whites and mix them with the potatoes and onion in a large bowl.

In a small bowl, mash the yolks, then stir in the mayonnaise, milk, vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the potatoes, and toss well to mix. Adjust seasonings if necessary.

Spoon into a serving bowl and chill until ready to serve. Garnish with a little paprika.

Apr 292019

I should just call today Musical Birthdays Day because three popular singer-songwriters were born today ( ) and, to add to the coincidences, two of the most famous British conductors of all time, Thomas Beecham (1879) and Malcolm Sargent (1895), were also born on this date. I was more aware of Sargent than Beecham during their lifetimes, because Sargent was the lead conductor of the Proms until his death in 1967, and that was right around the time when I became aware of them. His death actually caused considerable debate concerning the future of the Last Night of the Proms which had become uproariously patriotic under his baton, with mass singing of Rule Britannia and Jerusalem and the like, at a time when naked jingoism was giving way to public hand wringing concerning the evils of empire and colonialism. The patriotism survived some stormy years – now tempered with flags of all nations being waved and a general air of irony mixed in with the jingoism. Of the two I tend to see Sargent as more devoted to English music and Beecham as more international. The two men were close friends and colleagues most of their lives.

Thomas Beecham inherited a baronetcy from his father but was also knighted in his own right for his work as a conductor and impresario, best known for his association with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras. He was also closely associated with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras. From the early 20th century until his death, Beecham was a major influence on the musical life of Britain and introduced audiences to works from continental Europe that had hitherto been unknown, particularly Richard Strauss, Berlioz, and Sibelius.

Beecham was born into a rich industrial family in Lancashire famous for Beecham’s pills. Although in secondary school he had shown strong interest in a musical career, his father insisted he study Classics at Oxford, which he did for two years, before leaving without a degree and pursuing conducting piecemeal. He began his career as a conductor in 1899 as an amateur (with no formal training), and as a professional in 1902. He used his access to the family fortune to finance opera from the 1910s until the 1930s, staging seasons at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and His Majesty’s Theatre with international stars, his own orchestra and a wide repertoire. Among the works he introduced to England were Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier and three operas by Frederick Delius.

Together with Malcolm Sargent, Beecham founded the London Philharmonic, and he conducted its first performance at the Queen’s Hall in 1932. In the 1940s he worked for three years in the United States where he was music director of the Seattle Symphony and conducted at the Metropolitan Opera. After his return to Britain, he founded the Royal Philharmonic in 1946 and conducted it until his death in 1961.

Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent began his musical career as an organist and composer but eventually became widely regarded as Britain’s leading conductor of choral works. The musical ensembles with which he was associated included the Ballets Russes, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Royal Choral Society, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and the London Philharmonic, Hallé, Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Sargent was held in high esteem by choirs and instrumental soloists, but because of his high standards and a statement that he made in a 1936 interview disputing musicians’ rights to tenure, his relationship with orchestral players was often uneasy. Despite this, he was co-founder of the London Philharmonic, was the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic as a full-time ensemble, and played an important part in saving the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from disbandment in the 1960s.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sargent turned down an offer of a major musical directorship in Australia and returned to the UK to bring music to as many people as possible as his contribution to national morale. His fame extended beyond the concert hall: to the British public, he was a familiar broadcaster in BBC radio talk shows, and generations of Gilbert and Sullivan devotees have known his recordings of the most popular Savoy Operas. He toured widely throughout the world and was noted for his skill as a conductor and his championship of British composers.

If I had to pick between Beecham and Sargent as personal friends there would be no contest. Both men were lifelong philanderers, which I find distasteful, but at least Beecham was discreet about his affairs, whereas Sargent flaunted them. Also, Sargent was a flagrant snob, and Beecham often chided him about his posturing. For example, Beecham once described the rising conductor Herbert von Karajan as “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent” (translation: “like Sargent only with decent musical tastes”).  In the same vein, on learning that Sargent’s car was caught in rifle fire in Palestine he noted, “I had no idea the Arabs were so musical.” Beecham did describe Sargent as “the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced.” And on another occasion he said that Sargent was “the most expert of all our conductors – myself excepted of course.”

Both Beecham and Sargent were born in the Victorian era, so you have a wide set of options for recipes. Here is a video for a nut and cream cheese sandwich, that is not commandingly brilliant, except that instead of instructions you have classical music accompanying the process:






Apr 282019

Today is Sardinia Day (Sa die de sa Sardigna in Sardinian language, La dì di la Sardigna in Sassarese, La dì di la Saldigna in Gallurese, lo dia de la Sardenya in Algherese, Il giorno della Sardegna in Italian), also known as Sardinian people’s Day (Giornata del popolo sardo), a holiday in Sardinia commemorating the Sardinian Vespers occurring in 1794–1796.

In the last decades of the 18th century following the Savoyard take-over of Sardinia, discontent began to grow among the Sardinians towards the Piedmontese administration. Sardinian peasants resented the feudal rule and both the local nobles and the bourgeoisie were being left out of any active civil and military role, with the viceroy and other people from the Italian mainland being appointed in charge of the island. Such political unrest was bolstered further by the international situation, with particular regard to the ferment developing in other European regions (namely Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Hungary, and Tyrol) as well as the episodes leading to the French revolution.

In 1793, a French fleet tried to conquer the island along two lines of attack, the first one across the Southern coast in Cagliari, and the other, led by the young Lieutenant Colonel Napoleon Bonaparte, in the nearby Maddalena archipelago. However, the locals managed to resist the invasion by the French, and began expecting the Savoyards to acknowledge the feat and improve their condition in return. The Sardinians thus demanded most of the offices be reserved for them, along with autonomy from the Savoyard ruling class.

The king’s peremptory refusal to grant the island any of these wishes eventually spurred the rebellion, with the arrest of two notable figures of the so-called “Patriotic Party” (the lawyers from Cagliari, Vincenzo Cabras and Efisio Pintor) being the final spark of unrest amongst the populace. On 28th April 1794, known as sa dii de s’aciappa (“the day of the pursuit and capture”), people in Cagliari started chasing any Piedmontese functionaries they could find. Because many of them started to wear the local style of robes in order to blend into the crowd, any people suspected to be from the Italian mainland would be asked by the people to say “chickpea” (nara cixiri) in Sardinian: failure in pronouncing the word correctly would give their origin away. By May, all the 514 Savoyard officers were put on a boat and sent back to the mainland.

Encouraged by what happened in Cagliari, the people in Sassari and Alghero did the same, and the revolt spread throughout the rest of the island in the countryside. The uprising was then led for another two years by the republican Giovanni Maria Angioy, then a judge of the Royal Hearing (Reale Udienza), but it was later suppressed by the loyalist forces that were bolstered by the peace treaty between France and Piedmont in 1796. The revolutionary experiment was thus brought to an end and Sardinia remained under Savoy rule. A series of other major antifeudal revolts arose again in 1802, 1812, 1816, and 1821. The actual date of memorial was chosen in 1993 and public events are annually held to commemorate the episode, while the schools are closed.

Zuppa gallurese is a famous Sardinian dish that started out life as a cheap, peasant dish, but is now a universal comfort food. It is made of layers of bread and melting cheese, soaked in rich broth and baked. There are numerous variations depending on the kinds of bread, cheese, and broth.  Here’s some Sardinian cooks giving a basic version:


Apr 272019

The 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or Expo 67, as it was commonly known, a general exhibition, Category One World’s Fair held in Montreal, opened on this date (in 1967!!!). It is considered to be the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century with the most attendees to that date and 62 nations participating. It also set the single-day attendance record for a world’s fair, with 569,500 visitors on its 3rd day. Expo 67 was Canada’s main celebration during its centennial year. The fair had been intended to be held in Moscow, to help the Soviet Union celebrate the Russian Revolution’s 50th anniversary. However, for various reasons, the Soviets decided to cancel, and Canada was awarded it in late 1962. The project was not well supported in Canada at first. It took the determination of Montreal’s mayor, Jean Drapeau, and a new team of managers to guide it past political, physical and temporal hurdles. Defying a computer analysis that said it could not be done, the fair opened on time.

After Expo 67 ended in October 1967, the site and most of the pavilions continued on as an exhibition called Man and His World, open during the summer months from 1968 until 1984. By that time, most of the buildings—which had not been designed to last beyond the original exhibition—had deteriorated and were dismantled. Today, the islands that hosted the world exhibition are mainly used as parkland and for recreational use, with only a few remaining structures from Expo 67 to show that the event was held there.  Habitat 67, a model showpiece of what urban apartments of the future might look like, was iconic of Expo 67 – more than any other structure – and still serves as condominiums, although not quite as intended. I was suitably impressed to arrive by ship in Montreal in 1975 as an immigrant to North America, and to be greeted by Habitat 67 at the dock on the way.  It felt like a small omen of what to expect in this New World.

Habitat 67, or simply Habitat, was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, originally conceived as his master’s thesis in architecture at McGill University before actually being built as a pavilion for Expo 67. It is still located at 2600 Avenue Pierre-Dupuy on the Marc-Drouin Quay next to the Saint Lawrence River. Habitat 67 is widely considered an architectural landmark and one of the most recognizable and spectacular buildings in both Montreal and Canada. Safdie was given the blessing of the Expo 67 Director of Installations, Edward Churchill, to work on the building project as an independent architect in spite of his relative youth and inexperience. The development was financed by the federal government, but is now owned by its tenants, who formed a limited partnership that purchased the building from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1985. Safdie still owns a penthouse apartment in the building.

Habitat 67’s interlocking forms, connected walkways and landscaped terraces were key in achieving Safdie’s goal of a private and natural environment within the limits of a dense urban space. Habitat 67 comprises 354 identical, prefabricated concrete forms arranged in various combinations, reaching up to 12 storeys in height. Together these units create 146 residences of varying sizes and configurations, each formed from one to eight linked concrete units. The complex originally contained 158 apartments, but several apartments have since been joined to create larger units, reducing the total number. Each unit is connected to at least one private terrace, which can range from approximately 20 to 90 square meters (225 to 1,000 sq ft) in size.

The development was designed to integrate the benefits of suburban homes—namely gardens, fresh air, privacy, and multi-levelled environments—with the economics and density of a modern urban apartment building. It was believed to illustrate the new lifestyle people would increasingly embrace in crowded cities around the world. Safdie’s goal for the project to be affordable housing largely failed (and demand for the building’s units has made them more expensive than originally envisioned). In addition, the existing structure was originally meant to be only the first phase of a much larger complex, but the high per-unit cost of approximately C$140,000 (C$22,120,000 for all 158) prevented that possibility.

As one of the major symbols of Expo 67, which was attended by over 50 million people during the 6 months it was open, Habitat 67 gained worldwide acclaim as a “fantastic experiment” and “architectural wonder”. This experiment was and is regarded as both a success and failure—it redefined urban living and has since become a very successful co-op, but at the same time ultimately failed to revolutionize affordable housing or launch a wave of prefabricated, modular development as Safdie had envisioned. Even now, 50 years after Habitat, much of Safdie’s work still holds to the concepts that were so fundamental to its design, especially the themes of reimagining high-density housing and improving social integration through architecture.

Pâté chinois is French Canadian comfort food that you can find throughout Montreal. It is similar to English cottage pie or French hachis Parmentier. The dish is made with layered ground beef (mixed with sautéed diced onions) on the bottom layer, canned corn (either whole-kernel, creamed, or a mix) for the middle layer, and mashed potatoes on top. Seasonings, including cheese may be added to the top. Variations may include reversing the layering of ingredients with potatoes at the bottom, then meat, topped with cream corn; adding diced bell peppers to the ground beef; or serving the dish with pickled eggs or beets. This description should be sufficient, but here’s a video if you need more hand holding:

Apr 262019

On this date in 1937, the terror bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War was carried out, at the behest of Francisco Franco’s nationalist government, by its allies, the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, under the code name Operation Rügen. The town was being used as a communications center behind the front line and was also strategically located. The operation opened the way for Franco’s capture of Bilbao and his victory in northern Spain.

The attack provoked controversy because it involved the deliberate bombing of civilians by a military air force. In fact, vital munitions factories in the town were left untouched. The sole point of the attack was to demoralize Franco’s enemies by killing civilians and destroying their property.  Such actions are now spoken of as “total war” in which there is no distinction drawn between military actions and non-combatant actions. Everything is fair game. By the end of World War II, the Axis powers had suffered the fire-bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These were also acts of total war. It is sometimes suggested that the bombing of Guernica was the beginning act of total war in the 20th century, and, the Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, total war is now a fact of life worldwide. But there is nothing new about total war,

In ancient and medieval times, conquering armies were known to intimidate local populations by killing or enslaving everyone whether they were soldiers or not. Men, women, and children were all fair game. There are also many instances of entire cities committing mass suicide rather than submit to a besieging army. Historically, atrocities much worse than Guernica occurred. What made Guernica do hideous was that it was completely unexpected. It was not a tactic that anyone was anticipating, and, in fact, Franco as well as Germany and Italy initially denied they have any involvement in it because they knew the worldwide perception would be strongly negative.

Even now it is impossible to estimate the number of casualties and the amount of damage to the town because both sides had their reasons for over- or under-reporting. Republicans initially put the death toll at 1,700 while Nationalists estimated about 150 killed.  Nowadays there is still enormous debate, but around 300 is a widely accepted number. Likewise, opposing sides estimated anywhere from 17% to 74% of the town was razed. Some of the confusion arises from what caused the damage – that is, the bombing itself, or bombs plus fires.

The bombing is the subject of a famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso, commissioned by the Spanish Republic. Until Franco’s death in 1975 Picasso’s work (according to the artist’s wishes) could not be displayed in Spain, and so was housed in New York. Now it has its own exhibit space in Madrid, although the town of Guernica would prefer to see it located there.

The bombing was also depicted in a woodcut by the German artist Heinz Kiwitz, who was later killed fighting in the International Brigades, and by René Magritte in the painting Le Drapeau Noir.

The bombing shocked and inspired many other artists, including a sculpture by René Iché, one of the first electroacoustic music pieces by Patrick Ascione, a musical composition by René-Louis Baron and poems by Paul Eluard (Victory of Guernica), and Uys Krige (Nag van die Fascistiese Bomwerpers) (English translation from the Afrikaans: Night of the Fascist Bombers). There is also a short film from 1950 by Alain Resnais titled Guernica.

Basque cuisine is a happy mix of fish and meat, especially lamb, plus vegetables with a distinctive spice palette. Marmitako is a much-loved fish stew, normally made with tuna, but salmon or cod are sometimes substituted.  Here is a video showing a traditional method of cooking. The main thing to note is that the stew is assembled and cooked without the tuna, which is added at the very end and cooked only briefly (enough to cook through and no more). The video is in Spanish, but the gist should be easy enough to grasp.

Apr 252019

Today is World Malaria Day, an international observance highlighting global efforts to control malaria. Globally, 3.3 billion people in 106 countries are at risk of malaria. In 2012, malaria caused an estimated 627,000 deaths, mostly among African children. Asia, Latin America, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and parts of Europe are also affected.

World Malaria Day grew out of the efforts taking place across the African continent to commemorate Africa Malaria Day. According to the most recent World Malaria Report, the global tally of malaria reached 429,000 malaria deaths and 212 million new cases in 2015. The rate of new malaria cases fell by 21% globally between 2010 and 2015, and malaria death rates fell by 29% in the same period. In sub-Saharan Africa, case incidence and death rates fell by 21% and 31%, respectively.

World Malaria Day was established in May 2007 by the 60th session of the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body. The day was established to provide “education and understanding of malaria” and spread information on “year-long intensified implementation of national malaria-control strategies, including community-based activities for malaria prevention and treatment in endemic areas.” Prior to the establishment of World Malaria Day, Africa Malaria Day was held on April 25. Africa Malaria Day began in 2001, one year after the historic Abuja Declaration was signed by 44 malaria-endemic countries at the African Summit on Malaria.

World Malaria Day allows for corporations (such as ExxonMobil), multinational organizations (such as Malaria No More) and grassroots organizations (such as Mosquitoes Suck Tour) globally to work together to bring awareness to malaria and advocate for policy changes.

The theme for World Malaria Day 2019 is “Zero Malaria Starts With Me” which highlights, among other things, the fact that a malaria vaccine is being introduced this year in several African countries, beginning with Malawi: Malaria is caused by a parasite injected into the bloodstream by mosquitoes. Thus, prevention protocols can take many forms.  You can, for example, try to eliminate standing water where mosquitoes breed, use insecticides, sleep under mosquito netting, or use insect repellent to keep from being bitten. There are also various medications that have been around for decades that help prevent contracting malaria, but none is 100% effective. Many have unpleasant side effects, have to be started before visiting malarial areas, and some have to be continued for weeks after leaving affected regions.

The new malaria vaccine, approved in 2015 is a huge step forward. Admittedly it is only 30% effective, but 30% is much better than 0%, especially when it is children under 5 years old who are likely to die should they contract malaria.  Thus, the focus in 2019 is ensuring that the vaccine is widely publicized so that as many people as possible can avail themselves of it.

Since Malawi is the center of the vaccination effort this year, let’s think about Malawi cuisine. This video shows how to make the staple, nsima, a cassava porridge, plus boiled spicy greens, and meat:

Apr 222019

Today is the birthday (1904) of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who tends to be remembered as the wartime head of the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory that developed the first nuclear weapons. The first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16th, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico. Oppenheimer later remarked that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the war ended, Oppenheimer became chairman of the influential General Advisory Committee of the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission. He used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. After provoking the ire of many politicians with his outspoken opinions during the Second Red Scare, he suffered the revocation of his security clearance in a much-publicized hearing in 1954, and was effectively stripped of his direct political influence. He continued to lecture, write and work in physics. Nine years later, President John F. Kennedy awarded (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented) him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

Oppenheimer’s achievements in physics have tended to be overshadowed by his work at Los Alamos, which had little to do with theoretical physics. Oppenheimer described it as more of an engineering project than a scientific one. There were a few theoretical issues to resolve, but the great bulk of the work had to do with turning theory into practice, which was not his specialty. Nor was organization, apparently. Before taking the job at Los Alamos one of his colleagues described him as a man who couldn’t organize a hamburger stand. Yet he turned out to be a master of efficiency at the job. He routinely attended meetings in the various sectors of the project and was consistently deeply involved, affable and encouraging – much to everyone’s surprise.

He did have the reputation for being something of a show-off in terms of his breadth of knowledge outside of physics. He had, for example, taught himself Sanskrit in order to be able to read Hindu sacred texts. In a new paper I am writing, I quoted him:

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’ The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man’s self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.

You might be able to glean from this remark (or maybe not) that his colleagues would occasionally tire of his frequently self confessed erudition. In fact, more than one of the scientists at Los Alamos who had been trained in Europe remarked that he was no more sophisticated than a competent European schoolboy, but he thought a great deal of himself and was good at self promotion.

Before being involved in the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s theoretical work was well he regarded. He was responsible for the Born–Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions, work on the theory of electrons and positrons, the Oppenheimer–Phillips process in nuclear fusion, and the first prediction of quantum tunneling. With his students he also made important contributions to the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes, as well as to quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the interactions of cosmic rays. As a teacher and promoter of science, he is remembered as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics that gained world prominence in the 1930s. After World War II, he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

It is generally agreed that Oppenheimer brought a level of focus and intensity to discussions in Los Alamos that were essential for the completion of the project under enormous time pressure. These discussions would often go on well into the night, and Oppenheimer was famous for the martinis he made for the meetings as the night wore on. So, I’ll give you his recipe, even though it is not my custom to depart from food too often.

Start with 4 ounces of gin and add a dash of dry vermouth. Stir the mix with ice until chilled. Strain into a martini glass whose rim has been dipped in equal parts lime and honey. Repeat as needed.

Apr 212019

Today is the feast day of Anselm of Canterbury, also called Anselm of Aosta (Anselmo d’Aosta) after his birthplace and Anselm of Bec (Anselme du Bec) after his monastery. He was a Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher and theologian of the Catholic church, who held the office of archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 after serving in other capacities in monasteries in continental Europe. Beginning in Bec, Anselm composed dialogues and treatises with a rational and philosophical approach, sometimes causing him to be credited as the founder of Scholasticism (a dubious claim). Despite his lack of recognition in this field in his own time, Anselm is now famed as the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by a bull of Pope Clement XI in 1720.

As archbishop of Canterbury, he defended the church’s interests in England amid the Investiture Controversy (a long, involved wrangle between Anselm and English kings about his ability to be archbishop). For his resistance to the English kings William II and Henry I, he was exiled twice: once from 1097 to 1100 and then from 1105 to 1107. While in exile, he helped guide the Greek bishops of southern Italy to adopt Roman rites at the Council of Bari. He worked for the primacy of Canterbury over the bishops of York and Wales but, though at his death he appeared to have been successful, Pope Paschal II later reversed himself and restored York’s independence.

Anselm’s works are considered philosophical as well as theological since they endeavor to render Christian tenets of faith, traditionally taken as a revealed truth, as a rational system. Anselm also studiously analyzed the language used in his subjects, carefully distinguishing the meaning of the terms employed from the verbal forms, which he found at times wholly inadequate. His worldview was broadly Neoplatonic, as it was reconciled with Christianity in the works of St Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, with his understanding of Aristotelian logic gathered from the works of Boethius. He or the thinkers in northern France who followed him—including Abelard, William of Conches, and Gilbert of Poitiers—inaugurated one of the most brilliant periods of Western philosophy, innovating logic, semantics, ethics, metaphysics, and other areas of philosophical theology.

Anselm held that faith necessarily precedes reason, but that reason can expand upon faith: “And I do not seek to understand that I may believe but believe that I might understand. For this too I believe since, unless I first believe, I shall not understand”. This is possibly drawn from Tractate XXIX of St Augustine’s Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Regarding John 7:14–18, Augustine counseled “Do not seek to understand in order to believe but believe that thou may understand”. Anselm rephrased the idea repeatedly and his aptest motto might come from the original title of the Proslogion, “faith seeking understanding”, which broadened to “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. Once faith is acquired and held fast, however, he argued an attempt must be made to demonstrate its truth by means of reason. I’ll say amen to that

I recently read a blog about making a three course meal to celebrate the feast of Anselm, the first course an Italian antipasto celebrating his birth in Italy, the second course, a French roast to celebrate his time as abbot in Normandy, and the third, an English apple cake for his Canterbury days. This is ludicrously anachronistic (not to mention the fact that the antipasto had ingredients indigenous to North America). Italian, French, and English cuisines were not bounded categories in the Middle Ages. It is quite likely that Anselm ate much the same food in his birthplace as in the places he traveled. This would have been especially true of Normandy and England in the days when England was a province of Normandy, where Anselm served under the same king in both places. Rather, I will speak of lampreys (a sardonic choice given that Anselm’s second nemesis, Henry I, is reputed to have died from eating too many lampreys, against his doctor’s advice).

Lampreys are fish that superficially resemble eels in that they have scaleless, elongated bodies, and can range from 13 to 100 cm (5 to 40 inches) in length. They were eaten throughout Europe in Roman times through the Middle Ages, and were highly prized, especially in Lent, because their flesh has a meaty texture. Here is a Norman recipe from Le Viandier from around 1300 for grilled lamprey in sauce:

¶ Lemproye frite a la saulce chaulde soyt seignee par la gueulle / & ostes la langue faictes bien seigner boutes en broche & gardes le sang car cest la gresse & la fault eschaulder comme vne anguille en broche. puis affines gingembre canelle graine de paradis: noix muscade: & vng peu de pain halle trempe en vinaigre & le sang deffaictes tout ensemble faictez bouillir vne once puis mettes dedans vostre lemproye toute entiere & ne soit pas trop noire la saulce.

The basics of the recipe are that you should bleed the lamprey and keep the blood. Thread the lamprey on a spit and roast it. Make a sauce by boiling together ginger, cinnamon, grains of paradise, nutmeg and a little bread soaked in vinegar and the blood. Make sure that the sauce does not darken. Serve the grilled lampreys whole in the sauce.

Apr 202019

Today is the birthday (1745) of Philippe Pinel, a French physician who was instrumental in the development of a more humane psychological approach to the custody and care of psychiatric patients than was previously available. He also made notable contributions to the classification of mental disorders. Pinel was born in Jonquières, in the modern department of Tarn in the south of France. He was the son and nephew of physicians. After receiving a degree from the faculty of medicine in Toulouse, he studied an additional four years at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier. He arrived in Paris in 1778. He spent fifteen years earning his living as a writer, translator, and editor because the restrictive regulations of the old regime prevented him from practicing medicine in Paris. The faculty did not recognize a degree from a provincial university like Toulouse. He failed twice in a competition which would have awarded him funds to continue his studies. In the second competition, the jury stressed his ‘painful’ mediocrity in all areas of medical knowledge, an assessment seemingly so grossly incompatible with his later intellectual accomplishments that political motives have been suggested. Discouraged, Pinel considered emigrating to America. In 1784 he became editor of the medical journal Gazette de santé, a four-page weekly. He was also known among natural scientists as a regular contributor to the Journal de physique. He studied mathematics, translated medical works into French, and undertook botanical expeditions.

At about this time he began to develop an intense interest in the study of mental illness. The incentive was a personal one. A friend had developed a ‘nervous melancholy’ that had ‘degenerated into mania’ and resulted in suicide. What Pinel regarded as an unnecessary tragedy due to gross mismanagement seems to have haunted him. It led him to seek employment at one of the best-known private sanatoria for the treatment of insanity in Paris. He remained there for five years prior to the Revolution, gathering observations on insanity and beginning to formulate his views on its nature and treatment.

Madame Helvétius

During the 1780s, Pinel was invited to join the salon of Madame Helvétius.  After the revolution, friends he had met at Madame Helvétius’ salon came to power. In August 1793 Pinel was appointed “physician of the infirmeries” at Bicêtre Hospital. At the time it housed about four thousand imprisoned men—criminals, petty offenders, syphilitics, pensioners and about two hundred mental patients. Pinel’s patrons hoped that his appointment would lead to therapeutic initiatives. His experience at the private sanatorium made him a good candidate for the job.

Soon after his appointment to Bicêtre Hospital, Pinel became interested in the seventh ward where 200 mentally ill men were housed. He asked for a report on these inmates. A few days later, he received a table with comments from the “governor” Jean-Baptiste Pussin. In the 1770s Pussin had been successfully treated for scrofula at Bicêtre; and, following a familiar pattern, he was eventually recruited, along with his wife, Marguerite Jubline, on to the staff of the hospice.

Appreciating Pussin’s outstanding talent, Pinel virtually apprenticed himself to the unschooled but considerably experienced custodian of the insane. He wrote that he wished to “enrich the medical theory of mental illness with all the insights that the empirical approach affords”. He practiced a strict, nonviolent, nonmedical management of mental patients that came to be called “moral treatment” or “moral management,” though “psychological” might be a more accurate term.

Although Pinel always gave Pussin the credit he deserved, a legend grew up about Pinel single-handedly liberating the insane from their chains at Bicetre. This legend has been commemorated in paintings and prints, and has lived on for 200 years and is repeated in textbooks. In fact, it was Pussin who removed the iron shackles (but sometimes using straitjackets) at Bicêtre in 1797, after Pinel had left for the Salpêtrière. Pinel did remove the chains from patients at the Salpêtrière three years later, after Pussin joined him there.

While at Bicêtre, Pinel did away with bleeding, purging, and blistering in favor of a therapy that involved close contact with and careful observation of patients. Pinel visited each patient, often several times a day, and took careful notes over two years. He engaged them in lengthy conversations. His objective was to assemble a detailed case history and a natural history of the patient’s illness.

In 1795, Pinel became chief physician of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière, a post that he retained for the rest of his life. The Salpêtrière was, at the time, like a large village, with seven thousand elderly, indigent, and ailing women, an entrenched bureaucracy, a teeming market and huge infirmaries. Pinel missed Pussin and in 1802 secured his transfer to the Salpêtrière. It has also been noted that a Catholic nursing order actually undertook most of the day to day care and understanding of the patients at Salpêtrière, and there were sometimes power struggles between Pinel and the nurses.

Pinel created an inoculation clinic in his service at the Salpêtrière in 1799, and the first vaccination in Paris was given there in April 1800. In 1795 Pinel had also been appointed as a professor of medical pathology, a chair that he held for twenty years. He was briefly dismissed from this position in 1822, with ten other professors, suspected of political liberalism, but reinstated as an honorary professor shortly thereafter. In 1794 Pinel made public his essay ‘Memoir on Madness.’ In it Pinel makes the case for the careful psychological study of individuals over time, points out that insanity isn’t always continuous, and calls for more humanitarian asylum practices.In 1798 Pinel published an authoritative classification of diseases in his Nosographie philosophique ou méthode de l’analyse appliquée à la médecine. Although he is properly considered one of the founders of psychiatry, this book also establishes him as the last great nosologist of the 18th century. While the Nosographie appears completely dated today, it was so popular in its time that it went through six editions between its initial publication and 1818. Pinel based his nosology on ideas of William Cullen, employing the same biologically-inspired terminology of ‘genera’ and ‘species’ of disorder. Pinel’s classification of mental disorder simplified Cullen’s ‘neuroses’ down to four basic types of mental disorder: melancholia, mania (insanity), dementia, and idiotism. Later editions added forms of ‘partial insanity’ where only feelings were affected rather than reasoning ability.

In his book Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale; ou la manie, published in 1801, Pinel discusses his psychologically oriented approach. This book was translated into English by D. D. Davis as a Treatise on Insanity in 1806, although Davis substituted Pinel’s introduction for his own, leaving out among other things Pinel’s strong praise for Alexander Crichton. Pinel’s book had an enormous influence on both French and Anglo-American psychiatrists during the 19th century. He meant by “alienation” that the patient feels like a stranger (alienus) to the world of the ‘sane’. A sympathetic therapist living in that world might be able to journey into the patient’s experience, understand the ‘alienated’, their language, and possibly lead them back into society.

In 1802 Pinel published La Médecine Clinique which was based on his experiences at the Salpêtrière and in which he extended his previous book on classification and disease. Pinel was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1804 and was a member of the Académie de Médecine from its founding in 1820. He died in Paris in 1826.

The central and ubiquitous theme of Pinel’s approach to etiology (causation) and treatment was “moral,” meaning the emotional or the psychological not ethical. He observed and documented the subtleties and nuances of human experience and behavior, conceiving of people as social animals with imagination. Pinel noted, for example, that: “being held in esteem, having honor, dignity, wealth, fame, which though they may be factitious, always distressing and rarely fully satisfied, often give way to the overturning of reason”. He spoke of avarice, pride, friendship, bigotry, the desire for reputation, for conquest, and vanity. He noted that a state of love could turn to fury and desperation, and that sudden severe reversals in life, such as “from the pleasure of success to an overwhelming idea of failure, from a dignified state—or the belief that one occupies one—to a state of disgrace and being forgotten” can cause mania or ‘mental alienation’. He identified other predisposing psychosocial factors such as an unhappy love affair, domestic grief, devotion to a cause carried to the point of fanaticism, religious fear, the events of the revolution, violent and unhappy passions, exalted ambitions of glory, financial reverses, religious ecstasy, and outbursts of patriotic fervor.

Pinel developed specific practical techniques, rather than general concepts and assumptions. He engaged in therapeutic conversations to dissuade patients from delusions. He offered benevolent support and encouragement, although patients who persistently resisted or caused trouble might be threatened with incarceration or punishment if they were not able to control themselves. Pinel argued that psychological intervention must be tailored to each individual rather than be based solely on the diagnostic category, and that it must be grounded in an understanding of the person’s own perspective and history. He noted that “the treatment of insanity (l’aliénation mentale) without considering the differentiating characteristics of the patients [la distinction des espèces] has been at times superfluous, rarely useful, and often harmful”, describing the partial or complete failures of some psychological approaches, as well as the harm that the usual cruel and harsh treatments caused to patients before they came to his hospital. He saw improvement as often resulting from natural forces within the patient, an improvement that treatment could at best facilitate and at worst interfere with.

Pinel generally expressed warm feelings and respect for his patients, as exemplified by:

I cannot but give enthusiastic witness to their moral qualities. Never, except in romances [novels], have I seen spouses more worthy to be cherished, more tender fathers, passionate lovers, purer or more magnanimous patriots, than I have seen in hospitals for the insane, in their intervals of reasonableness and calm; a man of sensibility may go there any day and take pleasure in scenes of compassion and tenderness.

Pinel is generally seen as the physician who, more than any other, transformed the concept of ‘the mad’ into that of patients needing care and understanding, establishing a field that would eventually be called psychiatry. His legacy included improvement of asylum conditions; broadly psychosocial therapeutic approaches; history-taking; nosography (the science of the description of syndromes); broadly-numerical assessments of courses of illness and treatment responses; and a record of clinical teaching.

At the most trivial level it ought to be obvious that mental health and diet are linked. When I am not feeling well mentally, I consult my acronym F.E.D.S (Food Exercise Dehydration Sleep). 99% of the time one of these factors is out of whack. In this case, “Food” does not mean that I should eat anything, but that something is out of kilter in what I am eating. Often I am running low on something. I’m not going to make some major claim about specific foods and mental wellbeing. It’s complicated. The usual suspects do show up, however — foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (cold water fish, seaweed, and walnuts), whole grains, lean protein, leafy greens, and fermented foods with active cultures (yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh etc.) – and are shown to contribute to healthy mental states in one way or another. Walnuts on the list caught my attention, because even in Pinel’s day they were considered “brain food” because they look like brains (well – a little). Walnuts in a salad with leafy greens and maybe some sliced chicken dressed with yogurt would make a great combination of a number of healthy ingredients.