Jul 172017

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

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

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

Here’s what they say on their website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 212017

I am choosing today as a personal Turning Point for a variety of reasons. Today is the June solstice, a natural turning point in the solar year:


Of course, it is the summer solstice (longest day) in the northern hemisphere, and the winter solstice (shortest day) in the southern hemisphere:


People who live on the equator don’t have much to write home about on this day, but those north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle have 24 hours of daylight or 24 hours of darkness respectively, so it’s a reasonably dramatic turning point for them.  Between the tropics and the Arctic/Antarctic Circles, worldwide, the solstice is a milder, but nonetheless important, turn of the year for all cultures.

Because in 1986 the June solstice and the Full (Strawberry) Moon fell on a Saturday, my wife (RIP) and I chose it for our wedding day:


Generally at this time of year I start traveling and call a halt to this blog for a few weeks because I don’t have time for daily posts.  This year I am leaving Mantua for Mandalay where I will be teaching for the next 8 months, so why not take today as my Turning Point? I’ll be gone from posting here for a few weeks as I adjust to a new culture and a new timetable.

Tonight I’m having a dinner party for a few friends to mark the day as a transition point for me.  It’s stiflingly hot in Mantua right now, so I’m making an entirely cold meal, and I am following standard Italian norms: antipasti, i primi, i secondi, dolci. This is my last chance before I get immersed in Burmese cuisine.

My antipasti are prosciutto, tomino Langherino, and smoked salmon:

First course is pasta primavera:

Second course is chicken breast in olive oil and lemon over a bed of mixed salad:

Dessert is a Margherita cake with apples, glazed with fruit sauce and filled with frutti di bosco (optional whipped cream):

A dopo amici.

 Posted by at 11:32 am
Jun 052017

Another major coincidence day.  Today is the birthday of two monumentally influential economists: Adam Smith (1723 OS) and John Maynard Keynes (1883). If I set my mind to it I would be writing for days about their respective theories, comparing them, and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not going to, however. Even though it may look otherwise, this is, first and foremost a RECIPE blog and I want to stay that course even though I am patently easily distracted by history.  I’ll paint in very broad strokes before I get to my recipe and you can delve the mysteries of economics on your own if you are interested. I make no apologies for being overly simplistic.  It is a sad fact that most modern-day politicians are also overly simplistic when it comes to economics. I claim the right to be so because I am not making policy decisions that affect millions. Politicians ought to be more educated.

Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations, was first published in 1776, but went through many major revisions. Wealth of Nations presents considers such basic issues as what builds a nations’ wealth, the division of labor, productivity, and free markets. It is today a foundational work in classical economics. Smith’s thought is severely limited by the fact that he was writing at the extreme beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and so takes no account of the impact on macroeconomics of the factory system, mass industrial production and consumption, nor mass media and advertising.

Smith is sometimes best remembered for his concept of the “invisible hand” (which he called AN invisible hand), even though he used the term only three times in his voluminous writing. The idea is implicit throughout, however. Smith argued that when left with substantial freedom, economic systems are able to regulate themselves. The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is limited by externalities, monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others.

Smith’s most basic hypothesis is that rational self interest ultimately leads to an economy in which all benefit. Take a hypothetical man blessed with a ton of money.  What should he do with it? Assuming he is self interested he will want to make a profit. He has a choice between hiring hundreds of (unproductive) servants or hundreds of (productive) workers.  For comfort he might hire some servants but they produce zero profit for him. He is much better off hiring as many productive workers as he can.  They have jobs, he makes a profit – seemingly win-win.  Without regulation the system achieves a balance via the forces of supply and demand. Of course it’s not as simple as that, nor did Smith suggest it was.  But that’s the core. It’s also the basis of Reaganomics or “trickle down” economics: make the rich richer by leaving them unfettered by taxation and whatnot and their wealth will naturally filter down to the benefit of everybody. I think we all see the inherent flaws in that mode of thinking.

Keynes produced his most influential work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money during the Great Depression in 1936, challenging the ideas of the neoclassical economics of the time that held that free markets would, in the short to medium term, automatically provide full employment, as long as workers were flexible in their wage demands. He instead argued that aggregate demand determined the overall level of economic activity and that inadequate aggregate demand could lead to prolonged periods of high unemployment. Keynes advocated the use of fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and depressions. Classical economic theory had natural swings from boom to bust built in, and Keynesian models sought to flatten out these curves in the system through enlightened regulation.

From the end of the Great Depression to the mid-1970s, Keynes provided the main inspiration for economic policy makers in Europe, the US, and much of the rest of the world. While economists and policy makers had become increasingly won over to Keynes’s way of thinking in the mid and late 1930s, it was only after the outbreak of World War II that governments started to borrow money for spending on a scale sufficient to eliminate unemployment. According to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (then a US government official charged with controlling inflation), in the rebound of the economy from wartime spending, “one could not have had a better demonstration of the Keynesian ideas.”

The “Keynesian Revolution” was associated with the rise of modern liberalism in the West during the post-war period. Keynesian ideas became so popular that some scholars point to Keynes as representing the ideals of modern liberalism, as Adam Smith represented the ideals of classical liberalism. After the war, Winston Churchill attempted to check the rise of Keynesian policy-making in the United Kingdom and used rhetoric critical of the mixed economy in his 1945 election campaign. Despite his popularity as a war hero, Churchill suffered a landslide defeat to Clement Attlee whose government’s economic policy continued to be influenced by Keynes’s ideas.

As a not inconsequential side note Keynes thought that the pursuit of wealth for its own sake was a pathological condition, and that the proper aim of work was to provide leisure. He wanted shorter working hours and longer holidays for all. Keynes was interested in literature in general and drama in particular and supported the Cambridge Arts Theatre financially, which allowed the institution, at least for a while, to become a major British stage outside London.

Keynes’s personal interest in classical opera and dance led him to support the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Ballet Company at Sadler’s Wells. During the war, as a member of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), Keynes helped secure government funds to maintain both companies while their venues were shut. Following the war, Keynes was instrumental in establishing the Arts Council of Great Britain and was its founding chairman in 1946. Unsurprisingly, from the start the two organizations that received the largest grants from the new body were the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells.

Not only do Smith’s and Keynes’s ideas clash in government policies these days – head on – a host of other economic models vie for ascendancy. In the end, however, the unregulated free market versus enlightened regulation lie at the heart of the matter for the vast majority of people, including policy makers (none of whom appear to think very deeply about these matters).

As an anthropologist I can’t help but notice that the role of culture is almost entirely absent from the theories of both men. Terms such as rational self interest, supply and demand, profit motive etc. are not culture-free terms. Max Weber, for example, pointed out that what counts as self interest is influenced by cultural factors. He noted that in modern economies higher wages could stimulate higher productivity whereas in what he called “traditional economies” the opposite is the case.  The issue comes down to whether a culture works on the assumption that “more is better” or “enough is enough.” Weber argues that in modern economies the majority will always work more because the people want more, whereas in traditional economies people have a sense of when they have enough for their needs, and so will work only sufficient hours to get what they need. If you pay people higher wages in a traditional culture they will work less.  It comes down to whether a culture is driven by need or desire. Their economies will be very different.  Of course, for the West desire trumps need almost all the time. Gracias a dios, I escaped the endless desire for more and more a long time ago.  Sure a Ferrari will get me from A to B very efficiently and I will look good to others in the process. But a Fiat will get me from A to B also; so will a bus or a bicycle. Nowadays you’ll usually find me on a bus when I need to travel – taking photos or reading a book.

The economics of food shopping is by no means a trivial matter.  I am always acutely aware of the price of various items. It’s not that I cannot afford to pay a lot for certain things, but generally I am not going to – except on special occasions. This is the main reason that I cook the way locals cook for the most part. This is not a rigid rule of course.  I mostly cooked using Argentine staples when I lived in Buenos Aires, but I did make the occasional trek to barrio Chino to stock up on Asian foods because Argentine cooking is dreadfully bland. For me food shopping requires balancing three variables: 1. What I can afford (or what I am prepared to pay).  2.  What I need for a healthy diet. 3. What I am in the mood for. On good days I can juggle all three nicely.

Right now I’m preparing to leave Italy so another variable has entered the picture – part of the supply side. I have to use up a kitchen full of non-perishable foods such as rice, beans, lentils, pasta etc. or get rid of them.  The canny wee Scot in me will not countenance throwing them out or giving them away, so  my daily recipes feature a lot of rice and beans.  But I don’t want to be dreary.  I go to the market almost daily and hunt for special offers – especially overstocks of perishables that have reached their sell-by date. Supply and demand work to my benefit most days. This does mean that I cannot eat what I want, when I want, without paying the price.  I live with that because I can always make something tasty with what I have.

I could give you a recipe for my Stick Everything in a Pot Soup recipe I suppose, but the name pretty much says it all. The thing is that “everything” does not literally mean “everything.” It does mean putting things together that you do not normally think of as going together – for the sake of using them up. You can make an awful mess if you are not careful.  Timing is paramount (as it is with markets). Meat, onions, and other seasonings go in first.  Dried beans and pulses also need a lot of time to cook. Generally I don’t find that rice and pasta work well together in a soup. You can use one or the other, but their cooking times need to be carefully gauged so that they do not overcook. Same for vegetables.  Usually I plan about 2 hours to cook this kind of soup and carefully plan (on paper) when I will add each ingredient so that I end up with a soup in which every ingredient is perfectly cooked, and not overcooked.


May 102017

HAPPY 4th BIRTHDAY to my blog!!!! How time flies when you’re having fun. Since I began in 2013 I’ve posted from 3 continents with all the complications that arise from being in different time zones.  In Argentina I had to be posted by 8 pm or I missed the server’s deadline (which is on GMT). In China I had the luxury of posting all the way until 4 am the next day, so I frequently posted in the early morning hours (very confusing for Facebook). Now that I am in Italy we are more or less in sync, but things will get muddled again when I move to Myanmar (or wherever) this summer. Posting will also get a bit erratic in July as I follow the Silk Road east through central Asia. No matter. The food should be great, and I will have tales to tell.

For aficionados, here’s all my May 10th posts. The first was charmingly short and sweet – very unusual for me (the “short and sweet” bit — I am always charming !). I had not yet hit my stride. Now I fear they are too long.





Here’s the current top 10 list – always something of a mystery (with hyperlinks in case you care to check them):

Arthur Rackham
Cleopatra and the Asp
The Little Prince
Madagascar Independence Day
Madame Tussaud
Darwin and the Galápagos Islands
Nauru Independence Day

I’m in the process of trying to find a publisher for a related cookbook. It’s not going too well at the moment, but one press may be interested. You’ll be the first to know if I am successful. Most on the top ten list will make it into the book.

On my actual birthday I post other anniversaries and birthdays, so let’s do the same today.

On this date in 1869 the golden spike (also known as The Last Spike) was driven by Leland Stanford to join the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.

The Roman Catholic church celebrates the Hebrew Bible figure of Job on this date, while other denominations use different dates in May.

Romanians celebrate today as Independence Day or King’s Day either to recall the victorious independence war against the Ottoman Empire in 1877-1878, concluded with the recognition of Romania’s independence, or the crowning of Carol I as its first king, as well as all the kings of the Romanian monarchy.

On this date in 1774 the dauphin of France, Louis-Auguste, became king of France on the death of his grandfather, Louis XV (his father had died in 1765).  Things did not go well for Louis XVI.

In 1801 a little known war, the First Barbary War (1801–1805), also known as the Tripolitanian War and the Barbary Coast War, the first of two Barbary Wars, broke out between the United States, Sweden and the four North African states known collectively as the “Barbary States.” Three of these were nominal provinces of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice autonomous: Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis. The fourth was the independent Sultanate of Morocco.

Notable birthdays:

1838 John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

1872 Marcel Mauss, French sociologist and anthropologist whose major work, The Gift, still has considerable influence within the social sciences.

1899 Fred Astaire. Just remember that the taps and other sounds are dubbed in !!! Not bad, though.

1946 Donovan, who first came to my attention with this song.

More anniversaries and birthdays next year – I promise.

A birthday cake is appropriate as a daily recipe, of course, but I don’t like cake very much. I’m going to roast a chicken and make an apple and berry pie. I’ll put some candles on the pie and take photos later today. I’ll update as I can, but now I have to get ready for work.


I did make the pie yesterday evening. It’s of a kind I make a lot these days.  I start with a large circle of flaky pastry which I place in an earthenware casserole with the excess hanging over the side.  Fill with apple slices and wild berries. Fold the pastry over the fruit, dot with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden. Easy-peasy. 4 candles for effect.

May 072017

Today, the first Sunday in May, is World Laughter Day. The first celebration was actually on January 10, 1998, in Mumbai, and was arranged by Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of the worldwide Laughter Yoga movement. Now there are special World Laughter Day events in at least 105 countries worldwide. Kataria, a family doctor in India, was inspired to start the Laughter Yoga movement in part by the facial feedback hypothesis, which postulates that a person’s facial expressions can have an effect on their emotions. There is also some scientific evidence that laughter is medically helpful. Kataria’s speculation is that it does not matter whether laughter is forced or natural to have a beneficial effect. I can understand the hypothesis although I have no evidence to support it other than anecdotal. It is, of course, fundamental to yoga that body posture influences mental state. I think that this is unquestionably true, but whether it applies to deliberate laughter is not clear to me. However, I see no reason why we can’t deliberately provoke actual laughter. If I want to laugh I can watch this video, for example. It cracks me up – every single time.

Why this particular cat fail clip should make me laugh so reliably is not clear, and brings up the whole question of the nature of humor which has been studied endlessly and with little profit. Incongruity is one facet of humor, as in this case. The cat so clearly wants to jump up on the shelf, and fails. But . . . it does not jump and miss; its “jump” is not even worthy of the name. It just falls off the table. It is the combination of obvious desire and epic failure that appeals to me; that, and the fact that I know cats and their desires very well.

As a graduate student I wrote a paper on incongruity in comic strips for my sociolinguistics class. My (lame) hypothesis involved showing that sometimes cartoonists tried to be funny by making their characters say things that were grossly out of characters, such as, children being wise well beyond their years, or, conversely, adults talking like children. The latter is the stock in trade of the immensely popular television series The Big Bang Theory, which I detest precisely for that reason. The premise that highly intelligent men typically act like children in their social lives annoys me beyond words. First, the premise is demonstrably false, and, second, seeing grown men acting like boys does not amuse me.

Although some animals, especially non-human primates, exhibit physical behaviors that look like laughter, I find it highly unlikely that animals are capable of actual laughter. Chimpanzees and orangutans sometimes display laughter-like behavior when they are enjoying themselves, but human laughter extends well beyond simple enjoyment. It is much more complex. Much of human laughter comes from language, and this is outside of non-human capability.

There is no question that laughter can be infectious. This classic English music hall song, The Laughing Policeman, relies on infection for success (or failure):

I’ve always enjoyed provoking laughter from my students when I teach. It’s not a deliberate strategy; I can’t help myself. I see the funny side of things. In fact I see the funny side of just about everything when I am with other people. But there’s the thing. For me laughter is sociable. If I watch a movie by myself that amuses me, I don’t laugh, but if I am with other people, I do. Back in my college days no one had a television, but we had a television room and we would pack it on certain occasions, such as when Monty Python came on. The place would be in hysterics from start to finish, and I would laugh along with the others.

This point reminds me that laughter is intensely culturally specific. I had many colleagues in the US who did not find Monty Python funny in the slightest. On the other side of the coin, when I was in China I could not for the life of me figure out what Chinese jokes were all about, and they were perplexed at my humor. There was also the complication that Chinese university students generally think it is impolite to laugh out loud in class.

I had two separate ideas for recipes today. The first was to talk about “joke” dishes, that is, dishes that look like one thing but are actually another. Here, for example, is a “grilled cheese” sandwich that is actually toasted pound cake slices with a yellow icing for filling:

However, I’ve covered this idea before several times. So, instead I want to look at amusing recipes. I found this online (click to enlarge).

It’s a recipe generated by a computer program trying to emulate the activity of neural networks – that is, getting a computer learn how to think the way humans think. They were produced  by Janelle Shane using char-rnn, an open-source program on GitHub that she (and others) can customize to build their own neural networks. She gave it a cookbook to analyze and then asked it to produce new recipes. Granting computers human intelligence has a long way to go. I think we’re safe from a robot takeover for a while. Or . . . maybe they are already ingenious enough to know how to chop beer. Frightening.

Here’s another recipe that will keep you guessing:

Pears Or To Garnestmeam


¼ lb bones or fresh bread; optional
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ teaspoon lime juice
2  eggs

Brown salmon in oil. Add creamed meat and another deep mixture.

Discard filets. Discard head and turn into a nonstick spice. Pour 4 eggs onto clean a thin fat to sink halves.

Brush each with roast and refrigerate.  Lay tart in deep baking dish in chipec sweet body; cut oof with crosswise and onions.  Remove peas and place in a 4-dgg serving. Cover lightly with plastic wrap.  Chill in refrigerator until casseroles are tender and ridges done.  Serve immediately in sugar may be added 2 handles overginger or with boiling water until very cracker pudding is hot.

Yield: 4 servings

Apr 252017

Today is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of the Red Hat Society by members. In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper, an artist from Fullerton, California, bought an old red fedora for $7.50 from a thrift shop during a trip to Tucson, Arizona. When a good friend was nearing her 55th birthday, Cooper was inspired to buy her a red hat as a present by the Jenny Joseph poem, “Warning”, which begins “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” Cooper wanted to encourage her friend to grow older in a playful manner.  She repeated the gift on request several times, and eventually several of the women bought purple outfits as well and held a tea party on April 25, 1998, at which the Red Hat Society began. The idea spread, first by word of mouth and then through the internet and publications, so that now there are over 20,000 chapters in the US and numerous others in 30 countries worldwide.

I came across a Red Hat Society function about 10 years ago in New York. They’re hard to miss. The members all had on very elaborately decorated red hats. At the time I had no clue what it was all about, but got the basic drift from the members at the event, and then looked it up afterwards on the internet. What I found most noticeable is that the aims of the Red Hat Society and Jenny Joseph’s poem are a little at odds with one another. Here’s the full poem:


Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
And say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Jenny Joseph wrote this poem in 1961 when she was approaching 30. I can see how Sue Ellen Cooper was inspired by the poem – especially the first lines – but what Jenny Joseph is proposing is rather different from what the Red Hat Society became. I think that’s just fine; the poem is not a constitution nor some kind of founding document in total. My general mantra is that if people are having fun (and they are not being insanely destructive), it’s none of my business what they are doing even if it is not to my taste. What I will say is that the poem and the society are a little at odds in their stated aims.

Jenny Joseph wrote “Warning” in the post-war years in England when life could be very drab. Rationing continued well into the 1950s and the country was trying to rebuild itself in the aftermath of absolute calamity. Conformity to certain ideals of “success” were very much the norm. Good job, nice house, smart clothes, thrifty lifestyle etc. were the hallmarks of the successful life, and Jenny Joseph found all of this rather dreary and confining. She wanted to break free, but knew she couldn’t. Instead she fantasized an old age liberated from the strictures of youth, modeled on eccentric old English women, of which there were, and are, an abundance. A mere 2 years ago I spent a fascinating afternoon with a friend of mine in the cottage of a comfortably well off old woman in Oxfordshire who chain smoked, drank whisky, and kept a pet sheep in her kitchen. Her house was an utter riot of random clutter. She had asked my friend to come over to help her with her lawn which was overgrown and choked with weeds and wildflowers, because she wanted to use it for some kind of dog show that I never fully understood.

Jenny Joseph is, in fact, an old lady these days (she was born in 1932), and I have no idea what she is up to now apart from reading poetry now and again.  For a while she was a journalist in South Africa and then worked teaching ESL in London. She is certainly one of the most widely acclaimed living poets and has received numerous honors. I hope she is retired, but I wonder whether she spits, swears, and spends her pension on brandy and summer gloves.  The point of the poem is to stress a desire to break free from the norms of society, but, of course, since 1961 things have changed enormously. There was the decade of the 1960s, to begin with, which turned so many (not all) social norms on their heads. Many people, men and women, stopped wearing hats, for example, and the general rules of everyday street wear went south.  Were it not for the Red Hat Society, a woman wearing a purple dress and a red hat would go completely unnoticed these days

The Red Hat Society was inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, but its aims are hardly the same. First, the privilege of wearing a red hat begins at age 50, not the retirement age for women in England in the 1960s which was 60. That’s the kind of age Jenny Joseph was thinking of — or older. Sue Ellen Cooper was imagining something quite different in the US of the late 1990s. She was looking at what was expected of women in their 50s at that time and balking. It’s true that Joseph’s and Cooper’s underlying philosophy is the same –  break the rules and have fun – but what breaking the rules looks like is rather different for each woman. The Red Hat Society is called a “dis-organization” but it looks pretty organized to me. Go to their website https://www.redhatsociety.com/ and you’ll find plenty of organization including a very extensive online store. Nonetheless, I imagine meetings for tea vary enormously from group to group. The thing is that I know full well as an anthropologist that every social rebellion, large or small, sooner or later gets codified and co-opted by the society it is rebelling against. If ONE old woman wears a red hat and a purple dress it could be considered eccentric; if tens of thousands of them do it, it’s another way of conforming. No matter; I’m sure the members have fun in their own way.

If you are going to break the rules, afternoon tea is a good place to start. I’ve talked about afternoon tea several times in my posts, including the annoying misuse of the term “high tea” for afternoon tea in North America. In England high tea (sometimes just referred to as “tea”) is a full meal, whereas afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches and little cakes, that was first popularized in Queen Victoria’s court as a stopgap between lunch at noon and dinner at 7. Regular working people (myself included) typically have a full meal after work, rather than having a tea time followed by a later dinner. In my family we referred to our evening meal as tea when I was growing up, and we had it at around 5 o’clock.

I suppose you could “eat three pounds of sausages at a go, Or only bread and pickle for a week” but Joseph’s more basic point is that you should eat what you want without respect for the standards of a healthy diet. When I was a schoolboy in England in the 1960s I was always the first home, and, because I was hungry I would often eat a tinned steak and kidney pudding plus toast and jam with clotted cream and some chocolate to tide me over until dinner time. Nowadays that would be a full meal for me, but when I was a teenager my stomach was bottomless.

So what are you going to have with your cup of tea this afternoon? Three pounds of sausages might be OK, or bread and pickles — or both. They would be unconventional enough for afternoon tea time. But your limit is your imagination. I’ll take steak and kidney pudding — only not tinned.



Mar 092017

The fashion doll Barbie, manufactured by the U.S. toy company Mattel, Inc. was launched on this date in 1959 so we can celebrate today as Barbie’s birthday. Ruth Handler is credited with the creation of the doll using a German doll called Bild Lilli as her inspiration.  According to the Mattel company’s history, Handler was watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there was a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company but he was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors.

Bild Lilli

During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across a German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Bild. Lilli was a blonde bombshell, a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.

Upon her return to the United States, Handler redesigned the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date has become Barbie’s official birthday according to Mattel, making her 58 this year (2017).

The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model,” with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese home workers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.

Louis Marx and Company sued Mattel in March 1961. After licensing Lilli, they claimed that Mattel had “infringed on Greiner & Hausser’s patent for Bild-Lilli’s hip joint, and also claimed that Barbie was “a direct take-off and copy” of Bild-Lilli. The company additionally claimed that Mattel “falsely and misleadingly represented itself as having originated the design”. Mattel counter-claimed and the case was settled out of court in 1963. In 1964, Mattel bought Greiner & Hausser’s copyright and patent rights for the Bild-Lilli doll for $21,600.

Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll’s chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie’s appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll’s eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model. Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toy companies. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.

The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6 scale, which is also known as playscale. The standard dolls are approximately 11½ inches tall. In January 2016, Mattel announced that it will add tall, curvy, and petite body shapes to its line-up of dolls. Alternative skin tones, hair styles, and hair colors will also be added.


Barbie is without doubt a pop cultural icon of considerable magnitude. Andy Warhol used Barbie in his art and the Andy Warhol Foundation then teamed up with Mattel to create an Andy Warhol Barbie, setting Barbie alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara. Al Carbee took thousands of photographs of Barbie and created countless collages and dioramas featuring Barbie in various settings.

As a pop icon Barbie has come in for her fair share of criticism.  In her early days Barbie was a teenage fashion model. This was a huge shift away from the classic 1950s doll market that featured babies for little girls to look after which at best cried, peed, and closed their eyes, so that girls were limited to mother roles such as feeding, cradling, and putting to bed. Barbie opened up professional opportunities for little girls. At first these opportunities were limited to affluent, White, middle-class aspirations but she did eventually appear as an astronaut, surgeon, Olympic athlete, downhill skier, aerobics instructor, TV news reporter, vet, rock star, doctor, army officer, air force pilot, summit diplomat, rap musician, presidential candidate (not entirely clearly defined), baseball player, scuba diver, lifeguard, fire-fighter, engineer, dentist, and more.

To counter the WASP image artists have created a variety of trailer park “Barbies.”

Barbie was also criticized for her body type in the earlier years and that the doll promotes and unrealistic image for a young woman, leading to a risk that girls who attempt to emulate her will become anorexic. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate. In 1963, the outfit “Barbie Baby-Sits” came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which advised: “Don’t eat!” The same book was included in another ensemble called “Slumber Party” in 1965 along with a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 lbs., which by medical standards is clinically underweight for a woman 5 feet 9 inches tall. Mattel said that the waist of the Barbie doll was made small because the waistbands of her clothes, along with their seams, snaps, and zippers, added bulk to her figure. In 1997, Barbie’s body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs.

Mattel introduced the Ken doll in 1961 to be Barbie’s boyfriend – also a fashion model whom, in Mattel’s fantasy world, Barbie met on a fashion shoot.  Subsequently Mattel introduced a host of friends to include Mexican, African-American, and other ethnic groups under the Barbie umbrella.

In Japan, where cosplay is a huge cultural phenomenon, boys and girls have major plastic surgery so that their facial features resemble Ken and Barbie, which they supplement with exotic makeup, body shaping, hair color, wigs, and couture.

I can’t say I’d get on with Barbie if I met her in New Jersey. I’d certainly not be impressed with her cooking skills.  Her kitchen is not bad when it comes to basic utensils and equipment, but terrible with regard to food items.  This Japanese video showing Barbie cooking has to stock the kitchen with non-Mattel food items that are mostly out of scale and highly ordinary. Looks like if Barbie is cooking for me we’re having roast turkey, pasta, and salad.  Have fun with that.

Feb 212017

On this date in 1848 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was first published (in German) in London. It is a much misunderstood document, as is much of Marx’s work in general. I don’t have the space here, nor time, to redress all the misunderstandings, but I’ll make a start. The Manifesto was itself written to correct misunderstandings of what communism is/was, but it was itself misinterpreted badly by European revolutionaries and in points beyond. Marx was not envisaging dictators such as Stalin and Mao, but that’s the model of Marxism that has stuck in the general consciousness in the West, largely as a result of the Cold War.  Marx was addressing the radical divide between the people with all the money (hence power) and the rest of the population that was the model in his day in Europe, and which continues unabated. In my opinion his analysis of the situation (then and now) is generally sound, but his historical analysis is not.  The most important misunderstanding is of the world Marx envisaged – not the oppressive regimes of the likes of 20th century Russia and China, but a world in which the common people (proletariat) were not controlled, mind and soul, by the desires of an oligarchy of very few, very rich people (bourgeoisie), but, instead, controlled their own destinies.

I should probably start with a critique of Marx (and Engels) to demonstrate that I am not some kind of doctrinaire Marxist myself. Marx wrote in an era when very general ideas of the evolution of things were just beginning to catch hold, undoubtedly because Europe was radically changing under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution. A world that had seen precious little in the way of technological change for almost a thousand years was gripped by rapid and constant change and this had an effect on the intellectual world because change was in the air. The Grimms, for example, developed hypotheses concerning the evolution of languages, Lewis Henry Morgan proposed a theory of cultural evolution, and, of course, Darwin was interested in biological evolution. Marx stepped in with his own theory of historical evolution. My “simple” task here will be to try to separate the wheat from the chaff in Marx’s thinking, and will, obviously, end up being simplistic.

Where Marx has proven to be most blatantly wrong is in his hypothesis that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. Over 150 years later it is still going strong, the ultra-rich still hold all the power, and there’s no sign of collapse even though the disparity between rich and the rest is, if anything, greater than it was in Marx’s time in developed countries. The two major countries where a simulacrum of Marx’s ideas led to violent revolution in the 20th century, Russia and China, were not capitalist cultures at the time of their revolutions, but experiencing the last vestiges of feudalism that were ripe to be overturned — and have since adopted capitalist ideals on a large scale (including the huge disparities between the rich and the rest).

What cannot be denied is that the vast majority of people living in contemporary capitalist cultures are, by and large, comfortable. Of course they are exploited and controlled by a tiny minority of very rich people, but their lives are comfortable enough that they are hesitant to seek change, and so they continue as is. We still have plenty of poor people living in horrendous conditions but the Western world does not look like the Victorian London or Manchester of Marx’s day. The bulk of the electorate in Western democracies have food on the table, drive cars, have stable (if tedious) jobs, and aspire to owning their own homes. They have the time and money to go on vacation to exotic places, and they wear decent clothes. Discontent these days centers on the evident slowing of what was once a steady improvement in these comforts, not in the system itself.  Hence the capitalist system will endure unscathed through the rest of my lifetime and beyond. I have no idea what will cause its ultimate demise, but it will end – one day.

1848 was the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. No country emerged untouched, although not all participated in overt revolution. Marx certainly contributed to the general revolutionary fervor with the Manifesto. But the revolutions were fueled by a lot of forces, notably nationalism, apart from the desire for social change.  Marx’s rhetoric was inserted into the revolutions, but socialism of a different sort, led by social philosophers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, and Robert Owen, was also on the horizon, leading in a different, non violent, direction.  They were called “Utopian Socialists” by detractors (including Marxists) because their visions were viewed as naïve.  What is frequently missed is that Marx’s socialist aims were the same as theirs, only the vision of the methods of achieving it was different.

Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric Marx was a humanist. If you read his works prior to the Manifesto  you get a much clearer sense of his underlying humanistic social philosophy. He imagined a post-capitalist world in which farmers collectively owned the farms, workers collectively owned factories, and so forth, and they would inevitably benefit because they would keep all the profits and make all the decisions. We can argue about the validity of this hypothesis, but there is no question that Marx envisaged a brighter world for everyone when the workers were the masters. He did not imagine Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Perhaps he should have. Revolution from the bottom up begets tyrants.  Marx should have known this; the French Revolution produced Napoleon. The American Revolution was different because it was not from the bottom up, but from the top down. The first rebels in the North American colonies were the rich who wanted less taxation and less regulation on their businesses (times don’t change much !!).

Marx was spot on when he pointed out that capitalism commodifies labor so that workers see themselves in terms of their earning power rather than in terms of their inherent human (and individual) traits. Workers thus take less pride in their work and more in their pay check. Work becomes a means to an end (house, car, vacations, etc) rather than an end in itself. In consequence all other social activities, such as education, are judged in terms of their ability to increase earning power and not for their intrinsic merits. I’m absolutely sick and tired of reading article upon article that charts the universities with the graduates who earn the most, the college majors with the best earnings potential, and the careers with the highest salaries.  So what????  I became an anthropologist, a teacher, and a writer because I love doing that work. I can look back on a long career with pride and happiness because my jobs have made me happy, not because I have stacked away piles of money. My riposte to the ages old barbed question, “If you are so smart why aren’t you rich?” is simple. “I am not rich because I am smart; I have other goals in life.”

I am not a doctrinaire Marxist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am enough of a Marxist to believe that people should live in a society where they are free to choose their own destinies, and not shackled by the dictates of the system.

Some apt quotes from the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie . . . has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.


I’ve never wanted to be a chef because I’ve never wanted to debase my cooking via the profit motive.  I cook because I love to cook – end of story.  I hope this blog makes that point loud and clear. Today of all days you should cook something that you most love to cook, and cook with passion – not with an eye to time, cost, or any other variable other than devotion to the task itself. That means that you should choose today what recipe best suits you.  You are the master. For lunch today I had braised rabbit with wild mushrooms in a sauce seasoned with red pepper, garlic, onions, allspice, and ginger, with boiled new potatoes and broad beans on the side.  I’m not going to give you a recipe because (a) I invented the dish as I went along, and (b) today is your day to cook what you choose, not what I have decided for you. My braised rabbit took me 2 days to prepare because I like my dishes to rest overnight when they have complex sauces. I loved the preparation – and it was delicious.

Here’s a small gallery of things I have cooked recently.  In each case I cooked what I wanted without any recipe, just following my heart’s pleasure:

Dec 212016


Today is often treated as the birthday of crossword puzzles because on this date in 1913 Arthur Wynne, who had created a page of puzzles for the “Fun” section of the Sunday edition of the New York World, introduced a puzzle with a diamond shape and a hollow center, the letters F-U-N already being filled in. He called it a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” Although Wynne’s invention was based on earlier puzzle forms, such as the word diamond, he introduced a number of innovations (for example, the use of numbered horizontal and vertical lines to create boxes for solvers to enter letters). He subsequently pioneered the use of black squares in a symmetrical arrangement to separate words in rows and columns. A few weeks after the first “Word-Cross” appeared, the name of the puzzle was changed to “Cross-Word” as a result of a typesetting error.

By the 1920s crosswords were appearing in British newspapers with a certain amount of criticism from the high and mighty. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic some viewed the crossword puzzle with alarm, and some expected (or hoped) that it would be a short-lived fad. In 1924, The New York Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” A clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said, “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.” In 1925 Time magazine noted that nine Manhattan dailies and fourteen other big newspapers were carrying crosswords, and quoted opposing views as to whether “This crossword craze will positively end by June!” or “The crossword puzzle is here to stay!” In 1925, the New York Times noted, with approval, a scathing critique of crosswords by The New Republic, but concluded that “Fortunately, the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten” and in 1929 declared, “The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads….” In 1930, a correspondent noted that “Together with The Times of London, yours is the only journal of prominence that has never succumbed to the lure of the cross-word puzzle” and said that “The craze—the fad—stage has passed, but there are still people numbering it to the millions who look for their daily cross-word puzzle as regularly as for the weather predictions.” The New York Times, however, was not to publish a crossword puzzle until 1942. Ironically, both The Times (London) and the New York Times now publish crosswords of considerable notoriety and fame.


The crossword evolved rather differently in Britain and the United States, both in basic form and in the nature of the clues. The usual US crossword allows for a word to be filled in completely by filling in all the words that intersect with it, but British ones do not. In addition, US crosswords typically rely on synonymy whereas the British evolved the cryptic crossword which is now the more common form in the UK.

I don’t care for US-style crosswords at all. On the other hand, I have had phases in my life in which cryptic crosswords have held my attention – The Times daily crossword being my favorite because the setters are always fair in their clues, and the clues are usually solvable with average mental effort. In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.

A typical clue consists of two parts, the definition and the wordplay. It provides two ways of getting to the answer. The definition, which usually exactly matches the part of speech, tense, and number of the answer, is in essence the same as any ‘straight’ crossword clue, a synonym for the answer. It usually appears at the start or the end of a clue.

The other part (the subsidiary indication, or wordplay) provides an alternate route to the answer (this part would be a second definition in the case of double definition clues). One of the tasks of the solver is to find the boundary between definition and wordplay and insert a mental pause there when reading the clue cryptically. This wordplay gives the solver some instructions on how to get to the answer another way. (Sometimes the two parts are joined with a link word or phrase such as “from”, “gives” or “could be”.)

There are many sorts of wordplay, such as anagrams and double definitions, but they all conform to rules. The crossword setters do their best to stick to these rules when writing their clues, and solvers can use these rules and conventions to help them solve the clues.

Because a typical cryptic clue describes its answer in detail and often more than once, the solver can usually have a great deal of confidence in the answer once it has been determined, that is, the clues are ‘self-checking’ which is why most solvers fill in the crossword in ink. This is in contrast to non-cryptic crossword clues which often have several possible answers and force the solver to use the crossing letters to distinguish which is intended.

Here’s a simple cryptic clue:

Glittering light and boom upset deer (7)

At the outset you have to figure out which part is the straight definition and which part is the subsidiary indication. Here “glittering light” is the definition, and “boom upset deer” is the wordplay. You have to be careful with wordplays; they often rely on double meanings. Here “boom” is not a sound, but a part of a ship’s sailing gear, a synonym of which is “spar.” “Upset” indicates that the remaining part should be spelt backwards and an elk is a kind of deer. Spell it backwards and you have “kle.” Put the two halves together and you have SPARKLE.

The challenge with cryptic clues is that sometimes the whole clue involves a double definition or a pun of some sort instead of having just a straight definition plus wordplay. My favorite of this sort is:

Medicine hat. (4,3)

The answer is “pill box”

Another favorite is:

Double dutch. (8)

You’ll need to know English slang to understand why the answer is “bigamist.”

The fact that you cannot solve UK-style crosswords by filling in all the intersecting words if one word fails you can be infuriating. I got The Times crossword finished one day except for one clue. The letters I had were _L_H and the clue was “sacred flower.” Should have been easy, but I was a novice at the time, and I was mystified all day. The secret is in the word “flower” which does not mean “blossom” but “something that flows” (i.e. a river). The sacred river in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is ALPH !!!

I’ll leave you with:

Hair style with comb in it? (7)

I could give you a hint by suggesting that you use honey in today’s celebratory recipe. I could also (but I’m not going to) give you a slew of cryptic clues for today’s recipe, such as:

Shortening for a recipe. (4)

This site has a ton of recipe-related crosswords — http://www.whenwecrosswords.com/crossword/advanced_soups_and_sauces/35060/crossword.jsp and below are the clues for one of them.  You’ll have to go to the site for the diagram.


Across Down
2 Flour mixed with fat
4 Used in Indian curries, Moroccan tagines, and pickles
9 A spice that is spicy
11 This heightens the spices aroma before grinding them
13 Dried herbs should last this amount of time
14 This mother sauce has a brown stock and brown roux
16 This herb has a sweet, fresh, floral, woody, and intense flavor compound
17 Consists of diced carrots, onions and celery
18 Dried herbs are best stored in this kind of container
21 Bouillon is French for this
22 Debris from soups that settles to the top and simmers
23 Flour mixed with water
1 Mrs. Ashford hates this herb from the carrot family
3 Whole seeds will stay aromatic in this time
5 This sauce is almost like a stew and is typically served with pasta
6 Fragrant leaves or plants
7 Dill is a member of which family
8 We made this type of roux in the breaded chicken recipe
10 This recipe uses a sauce that incorporates egg yolks and melted butter
12 Soup base made from bones
15 Rich smooth soup that are pureed, strained and then smoothed with some cream
19 After they are ground spices begin to produce this flavor
20 What climate do most spices come from

As a final footnote I’ll mention that one of the essay questions on my entrance exam for Oxford University was “Why do crosswords?” and my answer greatly amused the examiners who commented on it very favorably when I went for my interview. It included stories I concocted such as one of a prison where a group of prisoners shared one newspaper per week, and each of them filled in the crossword mentally to avoid spoiling it for the others.

Dec 202016


Today is the birthday (1901) of Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, a US physicist, noted for his design and construction of high-voltage Van de Graaff generators. When I was studying physics in England in the 1960s my school’s Van de Graaff generator was one of my favorite “toys” although I was not aware that at the time its inventor was still alive. It seemed rather Victorian. These generators can produce well over one million volts, but they are not necessarily dangerous because the current (amperage) is weak. The high voltage is, however, useful in certain applications in physics.  I will also note that today is the birthday of physicist David Bohm who I wrote about 3 years ago http://www.bookofdaystales.com/david-bohm/  Definitely a physicists’ day.


The Van de Graaff generator uses a motorized insulating belt (usually made of rubber) to conduct electrical charges from a high voltage source on one end of the belt to the inside of a metal sphere on the other end. Since electrical charge resides on the outside of the sphere, it builds up to produce an electrical potential much higher than that of the primary high voltage source. Practical limitations restrict the potential produced by large Van de Graaff generators to about 7 million volts. Van de Graaff generators are used primarily as DC power supplies for linear atomic particle accelerators in nuclear physics experiments. Tandem Van de Graaff generators are essentially two generators in series, and can produce about 15 million volts.


The Van de Graaff generator is a simple mechanical device to build. Small Van de Graaff generators are built by hobbyists and scientific apparatus companies and are used to demonstrate the effects of high DC potentials. Even small hobby machines produce impressive sparks several centimeters long. The largest air insulated Van de Graaff generator in the world, built by Van de Graaff himself, is operational and is on display at the Boston Museum of Science. Demonstrations throughout the day are a popular attraction. More modern Van de Graaff generators are insulated by pressurized dielectric gas, usually freon or sulfur hexafluoride. In recent years, Van de Graaff generators have been slowly replaced by solid-state DC power supplies without moving parts. The energies produced by Van de Graaff atomic particle accelerators are limited to about 30 MeV, even with tandem generators accelerating doubly charged particles. More modern particle accelerators using different technology produce much higher energies, thus Van de Graaff particle accelerators have become largely obsolete. They are still used to some extent for graduate student research at colleges and universities and as ion sources for high energy bursts.


Van de Graaff built his first  generator in 1929 at Princeton University on a fellowship, with help from colleague Nicholas Burke. The first model used an ordinary tin can, a small motor, and a silk ribbon bought at a five-and-dime store. After this initial success he went to the head of the physics department requesting $100 to make an improved version. He did get the money, but with some difficulty. By 1931 he could report achieving 1.5 million volts. According to his first patent application, it had two 60-cm-diameter charge-accumulation spheres mounted on borosilicate glass columns 180 cm high. The apparatus cost $90 in 1931.

In 1933, Van de Graaff built a 40-foot (12-m) model at MIT’s Round Hill facility, the use of which was donated by Colonel Edward H. R. Green. One of Van de Graaff’s accelerators used two charged domes of sufficient size that each of the domes had laboratories inside – one to provide the source of the accelerated beam, and the other to analyze the actual experiment. The power for the equipment inside the domes came from generators that ran off the belt, and several sessions came to a rather gruesome end when a pigeon would try to fly between the two domes, causing them to discharge. (The accelerator was set up in an airplane hangar.)


In 1937, the Westinghouse Electric company built a 65 feet (20 m) Van de Graaff generator capable of generating 5 MeV in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. It marked the beginning of nuclear research for civilian applications. It was decommissioned in 1958 and was demolished in 2015.

A more recent development is the tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, containing one or more Van de Graaff generators, in which negatively charged ions are accelerated through one potential difference before being stripped of two or more electrons, inside a high voltage terminal, and accelerated again. An example of a three-stage operation has been built in Oxford Nuclear Laboratory in 1964 of a 10 MV single-ended “injector” and a 6 MV EN tandem.


By the 1970s, up to 14 million volts could be achieved at the terminal of a tandem that used a tank of high-pressure sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) gas to prevent sparking by trapping electrons. This allowed the generation of heavy ion beams of several tens of megaelectronvolts, sufficient to study light ion direct nuclear reactions. The highest potential sustained by a Van de Graaff accelerator is 25.5 MV, achieved by the tandem at the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Static electricity is not much use for cooking except under very special circumstances. This, and dozens of videos like it, is fake:

Static electricity can generate millions of volts, but it’s not just voltage that matters. You have to have a current as well. Without a current you can’t cook much of anything. Use your microwave and make some popcorn to celebrate Van de Graaff.