Jan 102018
 

Today is known as Traditional Day or Fête du Vodoun, a public holiday in Benin that celebrates the nation’s heritage particularly as it relates to the West African practice of vodun. The celebration is held annually on January 10 throughout the country but most notably in the city of Ouidah on the coast. Vodun was officially declared a religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists to Ouidah to participate in the festivities ever since. During Matthew Kerekou’s Marxist/military rule of 18 years which ended in 1991, vodun was suppressed and outlawed in the country. With the exit of Kerekou from power, the practice began to thrive freely again. Following his return to power as a democratic elected president in 1996, Kerekou capitulated to the people’s wish when taking his oath of office by acknowledging the existence of ancestral spirits, and the government declared January 10th as public holiday.

You will read various statistics about the popularity of Vodun. Some observers claim that as much as 60% of the population of Benin practice Vodun, but according to the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin declared themselves as Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% as Muslim, and 17.3% as practitioners of Vodun (the rest following various other indigenous religions or having no religious affiliation). I’m not sure that I can say a whole lot about vodun that will be terribly accurate because I’ve never been to West Africa nor studied the local spiritual practices particularly closely, but I’ll do my best. The one thing I can say with no fear of contradiction is that Vodun is grossly misunderstood by outsiders.

Vodun (meaning “spirit” in both Fon and Ewe languages, also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) is practiced by the Ewe people of eastern and southern Ghana, and southern and central Togo,the Kabye people, Gen-speaking people, and Fon people of southern and central Togo, and southern and central Benin. It is also practiced by some Gun people of Lagos and Ogun in southwest Nigeria. All these peoples belong to Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, except the Kabye. Vodun is distinct from the various traditional African religions in the interiors of these countries and is one source of religions with similar names found among the African diaspora in the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou; Dominican Vudú; Cuban Vodú; Brazilian Vodum; and Louisiana Voodoo. I use the word “voodoo” in my title here, because it is one spelling of the Fon word that is pronounced /vodṹ/  (in IPA transliteration), and because it is more familiar to most Westerners than Vodun. However, it is very important not to confuse Vodun with popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of Voodoo.

Anthropologists class Vodun as a form of magic (differentiating it from religion). This is a technical distinction that causes anthropologists to argue endlessly, and froth at the mouth a lot, so I’ll keep it simple (which probably is a synonym in this case for “wrong” or “misguided”). Anthropologists, going back to James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, have tried to separate supernatural practices into magic and religion, but the differences are not really hard and fast. Ideally, magic takes as a basic assumption that the world is divided into physical and spiritual forces that are deeply entwined, such that everything affects everything. The art to being a good magical practitioner is knowing the rules that govern how actions in one place have results in another place. In some ways magic is akin to physical science, which also believes that everything is connected to everything else. For example, Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation (which got superseded by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity), states that EVERYTHING attracts EVERYTHING else in the universe (with a force proportional to their masses, divided by the square of their distance apart). This law applies to planets, stars, galaxies, and sub-atomic particles. In principle, therefore, I exert a force on you, and you exert a force on me. When I see you (in person), light from your body enters my eye and becomes part of my body. Everything influences everything. Magic differs from science in that it posits a spirit world that is also connected to the physical world, whereas science does not. What differentiates magic (and science) from religion, is that magic (and science) works regardless of the intentions of the practitioner, whereas in religious systems, intention is everything. Break a mirror and you get 7 years of bad luck whether you intended to break it or not. That’s magic. If you want to undo the bad luck you must know the magical rules concerned with mirrors, and perform the necessary magic to make things right again.  In a religious system you undo bad fortune through prayer, and your prayer may be granted, but only if you pray with a good heart. Pray with bad intentions and the supernatural world will ignore you, or maybe even do you more harm.

Of course, magic and religion cannot be separated so easily in this way. The big push that led to the Protestant Reformation was the belief, on the part of the likes of Luther and Calvin, that magic had heavily infiltrated Catholicism and perverted it away from “true” religion. Candles, incense, bells, relics, etc. etc., were seen as magical nonsense by the Reformers. Even with the best will in the world, you don’t get rid of magic that easily. Professional baseball players on a long hitting streak may keep doing certain things repeatedly (even ritually) – eating the same breakfast before games, driving the same route to the baseball stadium, for example – even though they have no obvious connexion to the hitting streak. Magic can be reassuring in that way. Why jinx a good thing?

Vodun cosmology centers on the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, ethnic group, or nation. The vodun are the center of ritual life, and in some ways appear similar to doctrines such as the intercession of saints and angels within Catholicism that ultimately produced syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou. Adherents of vodun also emphasize respect for ancestors, and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

Patterns of vodun practice differ considerably within West Africa, and even within Benin. In many traditions, a divine creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being who bore seven children and gave each rule over a realm of nature, such as, animals, earth, sea, and so forth. In other traditions, the universe has both female and male aspects, often portrayed as the twin children of the creator, represented cosmologically by the moon (female) and the sun (masculine). Dan, who is the creator’s androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and as a go-between between the female and male, and between the supernatural and natural. As the overall mediator between the spirits and the living, Dan maintains balance, order, peace, harmony and communication. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine.

Because all physical objects contain divine power, even mundane items can have spiritual efficacy. Herbs can cure illnesses, not because of their physical properties but because of their divine nature. Even ordinary, everyday objects can be used in ritual because of their inherent spiritual force. Vodun talismans, called “fetishes” in English, are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold because of their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Drumming, dancing, singing; the ritual slaughter of goats and chickens; and drinking copious amounts of homemade gin, are all intrinsic parts of festivities in Benin on this date.

A very common street food (as well as home food) for festivals throughout Benin is Atassi or Waakye, which closely resembles beans and rice dishes found throughout Europe and the Americas. The dish is popular during Fête du Vodoun because the two complementary ingredients represent the duality central to vodun, and the dish itself is especially sacred to twins who are held in high honor in many West African cultures because of their resonance with the primordial twins of the creator. Beans and rice are called waakye in Benin because “waakye” is the local Fon word for sorghum, sometimes millet, leaves added to the cooking water to produce a distinctive brown color and subtle flavoring. You do not really need a recipe if you have any experience with beans and rice, especially because the Benin version is very plain.  Here’s a video for you.

Jan 092018
 

Today is the birthday (1920) of Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn, OBE, an English actor, probably best known for playing the doddering lance corporal Jones in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Dunn, like Ron Moody (Fagin in Oliver) and Joel Grey (MC in Cabaret) had his stage career dominated by that one character, but he was actually rather more versatile, even though you’d have to dig a bit to discover this side of him. I came across him first as the decrepit dogsbody, Old Johnson, in the Army Game spinoff, Bootsie and Snudge. This BBC sitcom mostly aired in the early 1960s and was occasionally shown on South Australian television, and reappeared briefly when I returned to England. I didn’t like the show in general, but was intrigued by the idea of Dunn, who was in his early 40s at the time, playing an aging Great War veteran (which Dunn was actually far too young to be). Indeed, I did not realize that he was as young as he was until my mother told me. Reprising the role of a doddering (but lovable) old fool in Dad’s Army seemed a bit of a cop out to me, but he was very popular. Meanwhile, I paid almost no attention, although my parents loved the show.

Dunn was born in Brixton in South London, the son of actor parents, and the cousin of actress Gretchen Franklin. He was educated at Sevenoaks School, and after leaving school, studied at the independent Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, in London. Dunn played small film roles from the 1930s onwards, appearing alongside Will Hay in the films Boys Will Be Boys (1935) while still attending school, and Good Morning, Boys (1937). In 1939, he was the stage manager for a touring production of The Unseen Menace, a detective story. This was not a success as the billed star of the show, Terence De Marney, did not appear on stage and his dialogue was supplied by a gramophone recording.

In 1940, after the start of the Second World War, Dunn joined the army and served with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. The unit fought during the German invasion of Greece but surrendered after fighting a rearguard action near the Corinth canal. Dunn was amongst the 400 men taken prisoner, and was to be held as a prisoner of war in Austria for four years. He remained in the army after the war ended, and was finally demobilized in 1947.

Dunn resumed his acting career after leaving the army, mainly in Repertory theatre, and soon made his first television appearance. In 1956 and 1957, Dunn appeared in both series of The Tony Hancock Show and the army reunion party episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in 1960.

Here’s the complete episode. Chances are that you won’t recognize him if you know him only as an old man character.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1c5isOPExDs

From early on in his career, his trademark character was that of a doddering old man which first made an impression on Bootsie and Snudge. This is the first episode where he appeared:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xILztFNwaN8

In 1967, he made a guest appearance in an episode of The Avengers, playing the proprietor of a toy shop in “Something Nasty in the Nursery”.

Dunn was one of the younger members of the Dad’s Army cast when, at 48, he took on the role of the elderly butcher whose military service in earlier wars made him the most experienced member of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, as well as one of the most decrepit. His relative youth, compared with most of the cast, meant that he was handed much of the physical comedy in the show, which many of the other cast members were not capable of.

After Dad’s Army ended, Dunn capitalized on his skill in playing elderly character roles, and popularity, by playing the lead character Charlie Quick, in the slapstick children’s TV series Grandad, from 1979-1984 (he played the caretaker at a village hall, and sang the lyrics in the theme). He had previously had a number one hit single with the song “Grandad” on his 51st birthday in January 1971, accompanied by a children’s choir. The song was written by bassist Herbie Flowers. He performed the song four times on Top of the Pops. The B-side of “Grandad”, “I Play The Spoons”, also received considerable airplay. After the cancellation of Grandad in 1984, he disappeared from the screen, and retired to Portugal. Following the success of the “Grandad” record, Dunn released several other singles.

Dunn married fashion model Patricia Kenyon in London in 1951. The couple divorced in 1958. He married actress Priscilla Pughe-Morgan in June 1959. They had two daughters, Polly and Jessica. Dunne spent the last three decades of his life in the Algarve, Portugal. He occupied himself as an artist painting portraits, landscapes and seascapes until his sight failed.

Dunn died in Portugal on 6 November 2012 as a result of complications, following an operation which took place earlier that week. Frank Williams, who played the Vicar in Dad’s Army, said Dunn was always great fun to be around. “Of course he was so much younger than the part he played,” he told BBC Radio Four. “It’s very difficult to think of him as an old man really, but he was a wonderful person to work with – great sense of humour, always fun, a great joy really.” Ian Lavender, who played Private Pike in the show, said: “Out of all of us he had the most time for the fans. Everyone at one time or another would be tempted to duck into a doorway or bury their head in a paper; but not Clive, he always made time for fans.”

A wartime recipe seems suitable. I don’t actually recommend this one, but it is a curiosity. It’s called Lord Woolton pie, a thoroughly forgettable dish. It was created at the Savoy Hotel in London by its then Maître Chef de Cuisine, Francis Latry. It was one of a number of recipes commended to the British public by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War to enable a nutritious diet to be maintained despite shortages and rationing of many types of food, especially meat. It was named after Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton (1883–1964), who popularized the recipe after he became Minister of Food in 1940. Here’s the recipe as printed in newspapers.

Here’s a better expansion of the recipe.

Lord Woolton Pie

Ingredients

Filling

1 lb potato, peeled and diced
1 lb cauliflower, chopped
1 lb carrot, peeled and diced
1 lb parsnip, peeled and diced
3 spring onions, chopped
1 tsp vegetable extract
1 tbsp oatmeal
parsley

Crust

4 ounces cooked and mashed potatoes
½ tsp salt
8 oz plain flour
3 oz shortening
2 tbsp baking powder

Instructions

For the filling: Place all ingredients except for parsley into a large pot. Add just enough water to cover. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the vegetables sticking to the pot. When the vegetables are cooked, turn of the heat and allow the mixture to cool. Sprinkle with parsley and season to taste.

For the crust: Combine the salt, flour and baking powder. Rub the shortening into the flour mixture. Gently mix in the potato. Add a little water if the mix is too dry. Knead the dough and then roll out on a floured board.

Place the pie filling in a deep pie dish or casserole dish. Cover with the potato pastry. Bake in a 400˚F oven for 25-30 minutes or until pastry is lightly browned.

Serve with gravy.

[I’m tempted to say, “Let cool and feed to the cat” but my cats would not have touched this.]

Jan 082018
 

Today is International Typing Day or World Typing Day or, simply, Typing Day, an annual event that originated in Malaysia, co-organized by the STC (Speed Typing Contest) Team from JCI (Junior Chamber International), and Team TAC (Typo Auto Corrector) to promote speed, accuracy and efficiency in written communication among the public. Typing Day was first celebrated in 2011 and aims to encourage people to express themselves via written communication, but also commemorates the Malaysian Speed Typing Contest 2011, which broke two records in the Malaysian Book of Records (MBR), that is, the Fastest Typist and the Largest Participation for a Typing Event. The individual winner of the 2011 tournament was Shaun Low Foo Shern, with a speed of 146 words per minute (wpm). In the Malaysian event, typists have to meet a minimum standard to qualify for the live event. During the live competition, they may compete several times, one minute at a time, choosing their best performance for submission for final judgment. Typists must not only be fast, but must also maintain a set level of accuracy.

Typing at 146 wpm is actually pretty slow by world record standards, although certainly fast enough by professional standards. Guinness World Records gives the fastest ever typing speed on an alphanumeric keyboard as 216 words in one minute achieved by Stella Pajunas in 1946 on an IBM electric. As of 2005, writer Barbara Blackburn was the fastest alphanumerical English language typist in the world, according to Guinness World Records. Using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, she maintained 150 wpm for 50 minutes, and 170 wpm for shorter periods. Her top speed was 212 wpm.

All of these speeds are completely beyond me, of course. Apart from anything else, these are copy typing speeds, and I don’t copy type. In fact, I doubt that in this day and age anyone does. Back before personal computers and word processing applications were the norm, there was a perpetual need for copy typists. When I was in secondary school in the 1960s, a substantial percentage of girls (boys were never involved), took courses in shorthand and typing as an avenue to secure jobs when they left school at 16. The trick to being an employable copy typist was being able to touch type (that is, type accurately, without looking at the keyboard), at a decent rate. Trainees took exams to check speed and accuracy, with somewhere between 50 to 80 wpm being acceptable. If you could touch type 60 wpm accurately, you were pretty much guaranteed a job. That was the case until the late 1980s.

When I wrote my MA thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation in the 1970s, I wrote them first by hand on a ruled notepad. Then I typed them up for submission to my advisers. When they had been approved, I handed them over to a copy typist to turn them into professional-quality typescripts that would be stored in the university’s library. In those days I could “hunt and peck” type with 2 fingers, and turn out reasonable typescripts for general work. But I could not type accurately, and my pages were spattered all over with white-out where I had made errors. I could not produce work of a professional quality. Computers changed all that.  Now I compose on my laptop, and generally submit my work to publishers in digital form. Speed is not really an issue because I can now type as fast as I compose. I can touch type and I use 8 fingers (using my right thumb for the space bar).  This ability comes about by having composed my writing on a computer keyboard since 1983. I write no less than 6 hours per day, 6 days per week. You can’t help but get facile under those circumstances.

The objective of the Malaysian Typing Day is a little bit strange, I feel.  It is meant to encourage people to write more as their method of communication, and, is supposed to encourage accuracy in composition. Typing Day was originally conceived by Team TAC (Typo Auto Corrector), made up of Jay Chong Yen Jye, Nicholas Koay Zhen Lin and Edwin Khong Wai Howe, the winner of the MSC Malaysia-IHL Business Plan Competition (MIBPC) in 2010. The stated goal was to encourage ordinary people, especially the younger generation, to type more, and to be more accurate in spelling in their communications. Team TAC designed and developed SecondKey, a computer application that automatically corrects spelling errors and typos in English in virtually any online and offline type-written interface (i.e. social network sites, word processing programs, etc.).

I’m all for people writing more, and for being accurate in their spelling. Badly spelled posts on social media sites always make me cringe. Auto-correct applications are not the answer, however. I have auto-correct options on my phone and on my word processor, and I have them turned off. I don’t want an application deciding what is correct, or what I meant. Many of my friends do use auto-correct, though, and quite often they post ridiculous things because auto-correct has made unwarranted changes. Afterwards, they complain that the ridiculous statement was auto-correct’s fault. NO IT WAS NOT. It was their fault. Even if you use auto-correct, you should read what you have written before sending it off to make sure that what is written is what you intended.

Most of my writing applications have a spell-check option, which I find useful occasionally. For example, the word processor I am composing on now will underscore a word with a squiggly red line if it thinks it is spelled wrong. About 90% of the time, spell-check is in error. My vocabulary is bigger than its database of words. On the other side of the coin, spell-check will not mark words as incorrectly spelled if it has a word in its database that matches, even if you are using the wrong word. So, for example, my spell-check has no problem with, “It’s leg was broken” or “Their leaving tomorrow.” There’s a big difference between, “He’s coming too” and “He’s coming to” but spell check doesn’t care.

In simple terms, I am not a fan of auto-correct or spell-check software. I am a fan of proof-reading, good grammar habits, and good spelling. So, on Typing Day I certainly recommend that you write to someone. Write to me, right here. I do not recommend using software to aid your writing. You become a better writer by writing more often – end of story.

For your recipe today, I am going to give you an ingredient list for a soup I make quite often.  All you have to do is combine the ingredients and simmer for an hour. My ingredient list was written using my auto-correct, however. Figuring out what the ingredients are may be a challenge. There is not a single entry that my spell-checker thinks is incorrect.

© Tío Juan’s Auto-Correct Soup  

1 cup lent ills
1 on yon, pearled and chirped
1 pint char ken broth
2 tsp come on
8 card or mom pods
1 tsp term or Rick
1 tsp Oregon oh
jobbed parse Lee
sold and paper

Enjoy !!

Jan 072018
 

 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Zora Neale Hurston, African-American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist who is known not only for her contributions to African-American literature, but also for her portrayal of racial struggles in the American South, and works documenting her research on African-American folk traditions in Florida, and voodoo in Jamaican and Haiti. She is probably best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. . Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest revived after author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine.

Hurston was the sixth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Her father was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, who later became a carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida which later became the location of several of her important works. Eatonville was one of the first all-African-American towns to be incorporated into the United States (1887). Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her because she grew up there, and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became minister of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.

Eatonville was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of White society, and this upbringing undoubtedly influenced Hurston’s political outlook. She often sided with Southern conservatives who opposed integration, seeing “separate but equal” as a positive value, given that integration inevitably exposed African-Americans to racism and discrimination. The problem, of course, as was made clear by the Civil Rights movement is that the “separate” part is easy to accomplish, the “equal” part is not.

In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her year of birth.[12] She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918. In 1918, Hurston began her studies at Howard University, where took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the college’s sole African-American student.

Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research directed by Franz Boas. She also worked with Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead was a fellow student. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston befriended the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Her apartment, according to some accounts, was a popular spot for social gatherings.

In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina. Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938). From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida.

Hurston never had much income from her writing and so later in life she took a number of poorly paid odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957, but was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job. Subsequently she moved to Fort Pierce, taking jobs where she could find them. She worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. At age 60 she was helped by public assistance, and at one point she even worked as a maid on Miami Beach’s Rivo Alto Island

During this period of financial stress and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.

Hurston has two distinct voices in her writing: one was a standard literary voice; the other was an attempt to capture the sounds and rhythms of Southern African-America speaking style. Here’s some examples of both:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep.

At the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the lead character, Janie Crawford, returns from the Everglades, where she has shot her husband and been acquitted, to Eatonville, in ragged overalls, where all the women are gossipy and unwelcoming. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings her a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease . . . but it’ll kill hongry.”

The Savannah Cook Book: A collection of old fashioned receipts from Colonial kitchens by Harriet Ross Colquitt contains this recipe for mulatto rice:

Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.

Seems simple enough. I’m assuming that you use the bacon in another dish but keep the rendered fat for flavoring. On the other hand, I see no reason not to include the fried bacon in the dish.

Jan 062018
 

Today is Epiphany in most parts of the Western Christian world, and is Christmas Day in much of the Eastern Orthodox world, following the Julian calendar (at least, as it was in the 18th century). There is a splendid coincidence in that the move from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar by Great Britain and its colonial holdings in 1752 stripped the year of 11 days, making January 6th in the New Style, correspond to December 25th in the Old Style, making the 12 days of Christmas act as the perfect gap between “New Christmas” and “Old Christmas.” There is an (undocumented) belief, as in the text below, that some isolated British colonists in North America did not get the news of the switch in calendars for some time, and, thus, continued to celebrate Christmas on the Julian date, and then, when they got the news, continued to celebrate Old and New Christmas. Whether this is true or not, there is a continuing tradition of celebrating Old Christmas with the Old Buck ceremony in Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on January 6th.

I first learned about Old Buck when I was a first-year graduate student in folklore at the University of North Carolina, but my professor, a native of North Carolina’s piedmont dismissed it as a pale echo of European hobby horse customs that was mostly an excuse for getting drunk, fighting, and shooting off rifles and shotguns. That was 1975, and I expect the Old Buck ceremony that he witnessed was, indeed, just that. In 1978 when I was doing fieldwork in the region of the Outer Banks I was not around for January 6th, so I can’t say if it had evolved at all at that time.  But now it has been restored to respectability. It is not a tourist attraction, and is not generally advertised. Longtime residents of Rodanthe, do not want outsiders involved. Even back in the 1970s they were being inundated by “foreigners” (that is, northerners), who built massive houses on the ocean front that periodically got swept away by storms, and rebuilt. Locals had their homes well away from the ocean on the Pamlico Sound side of the island, where they were (mostly) sheltered from storms. It is in and around these homes that the Old Buck ceremony takes place. This description from the Outer Banks Sentinal gives the general flavor although there are some historical inaccuracies which I will pass over. I’ve added some photos. (http://www.obsentinel.com/features/and-now-it-is-time-for-old-christmas-celebrations/article_fefb40a7-700a-5c3f-811d-04f28034881d.html )

For more than 100 years residents of Rodanthe have celebrated two Christmases: the Christmas that comes with Santa Claus on Dec. 25, and Old Christmas, which is visited by “Old Buck” on Jan. 6. Held at Rodanthe Community Building, festivities begin on the first Saturday after Epiphany with Old Christmas Eve night.

Today, families from the villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo gather to celebrate, roast oysters and await the bull of the hour. Tourists are welcome but seldom understand the meaning behind the added holiday.

In the late 70s, Old Christmas had gained the reputation of being a good place to participate in a good old-fashioned drunken brawl.

Towards evening Old Buck, the mythical wild bull, appears. He is a makeshift horned, masked creature, usually with the body of a blanket to cover the wearer. Legend has it that Old Buck impregnated every single cow in Buxton Woods and terrorized local farmers until a hunter finally shot him. His spirit survives in the Rodanthe hummocks and marshes.

Hence, Old Christmas Eve night (Jan. 5) was the time when natives used to say that the cattle came out to pray. It was also the time when the poke bush was reported to have appeared overnight, where none had grown before.

 

Old Christmas, also known as Little Christmas, Epiphany or Twelfth Night, is thought to have its origin in medieval England. Before the Calendar Act of 1751, England celebrated Christmas on the 6th day of January. In some parts of Great Britain, this date is still referred to as Old Christmas Day.

Another explanation for the date is that when the English Crown adopted the Georgian Calendar, shortening the year by eleven days, the Hatteras towns were not told until years later. When they were told, the Bankers simply refused to incorporate the change their calendar.

In Rodanthe in particular – in addition to the calendar timing – there was a practical reason for the celebration. Years ago the town was divided into two settlements – north and south Rodanthe (the Southern settlement became Waves) separated by a mile. It was hard for friends and family to gather on one holiday, so the natives of one settlement visited kin in the other and then on the second Christmas the process was reversed. The end result was that both sections managed to enjoy twice the fun.

One old custom recalled by Nell Wechter in a late 40s edition of the Coastland Times took place on Old Christmas Eve night. It was a custom in which some of the young girls in the community met, cooked a meal and set it on the table. The girls then hid under the table and waited for “ghosts” to appear. Because the waiting produced dead silence, the setting was called a “Dumb Table.” The ghosts themselves were supposed to look like the men the girls would one day marry.

Traditions of Old Christmas past also include beginning the festivities with fifes and drums playing eerie music at the crack of dawn to awaken natives.

Children and adults would put socks or homemade masks on their faces, dress in colorful clothing and run around singing Christmas carols to their neighbors as they awaited the appearance of Old Buck.

And finally, instead of a drunken brawl and dance to polish off the evening, revelers of yore gathered for a much tamer candy boiling punctuated by Christmas carols.

Roast oysters are traditional for supper on Old Christmas in Rodanthe. When I lived in the region they were usually roast over a driftwood fire on the beach. I wish you joy if you can do that. Maybe, however, you’d be more comfortable with Hatteras clam chowder, which I learned to make back in the 1970s. It is much like New England clam chowder, but does not have any cream or milk added. It is a simple dish, but time consuming because of the time it takes to remove the clam shells.

Hatteras Clam Chowder

Ingredients

about 100 littleneck clams, cleaned
2 onions, peeled and diced dice
5 cups peeled and diced potatoes
½ lb streaky, smoked bacon, coarsely chopped
salt and white pepper
chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Instructions

Bring one quart of water, salted to taste, to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the clams, cover, and cook until the clams are open. Use a slotted spoon to remove the clams, discarding any that do not open. Do this step as quickly as possible so as not to overcook the clams.

Strain the cooking broth through a double layer of muslin, clean the pot, and return the broth to the pot.

Pick the clams from the shells and discard the shells.  Set aside the clams.

In a heavy skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until the fat is rendered, and the bacon pieces are cooked but soft.   Remove them with a slotted spoon, and add them to the broth. Add the onions to the hot fat and fry them until they are just soft, but have not taken on color. Add them and the fat to the broth.

Bring the broth back to a simmer and add the potatoes. Cook them to your desired softness. North Carolina cooks like them falling apart, but I prefer them a little firmer. Cook’s choice.

Add back the clams, and let them heat through in the broth.

Serve in deep bowls, garnished with parsley if you want, with oyster crackers (or crusty bread).

Serves 8

Jan 052018
 

Today is variously known as Twelfth Night or the Eve of Epiphany. If you count Christmas Day as the 1st day of Christmas (which you should), today is the 12th day. I’ve covered a lot of this ground before in other posts, notably here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/  Let me recap a little before addressing, specifically, the custom of Apple Wassailing that is attested on, or around, this date as early as the 16th century in the cider producing parts of the west country of England, and has been revived in a few places in recent years. There are no unbroken traditions dating even to the 19th century still being performed.  All wassailing customs now are revivals, with precious little to do with older customs, and always accompanied with the usual blather about them dating back to “pagan” times, which has no support whatsoever in primary documents.

The practice of giving English farm workers and servants 12 days off over what is now the Christmas season dates back to an edict by Alfred the Great (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/kings-of-england/ ). In 877 Alfred decreed that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was the slack time on farms anyway, and was not really a Christmas tradition, as such, because Christmas was not really a celebration in Alfred’s time. When Christmas became more popular, the 12 days shifted over to Christmas from the solstice. Until the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions in England completely disrupted the annual farm cycle, taking a break from agricultural work in the depths of winter was perfectly natural. There’s no need to drive ploughboys and ploughmen out on to frosty land in late December to turn the soil, given that no planting is going to happen until the ground has warmed a little. There’s time enough for ploughing in January. Give the workers a break.

Even the etymology of “wassail” gets us into murky water. The word “wassail” seems to come from the Anglo-Saxon greeting wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale,” or simply “be well” (which, ironically, is also the meaning of “fare well”). In many European languages the same word is used for “hello” and “goodbye.”  We should not put too much stock in etymology anyway; “goodbye” is a contraction of the old, “God be with ye,” but the etymology has no bearing on the current meaning of “goodbye” (or “farewell”).  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) waes hael is the Middle English (post-Norman) spelling parallel to OE hál wes þú, and was simply a greeting, and not a drinking formula or toast. The OED explicitly rejects the notion that “wassail” or cognates was a drinking formula in the early medieval period in Germanic or Norse lands. However, by the late 12th century, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England had turned “was hail,” and the reply “drink hail,” into a toast, which was apparently widely adopted, although primary sources are sparse. At one time “wassail” was a toast that could be used any time people were drinking, but, at some undefined date, it became associated with Christmas and with Christmas customs.

There are two rather distinct wassailing traditions in England, both at one time associated with Twelfth Night: (1) Taking a wassail bowl of mulled ale or cider from door to door, singing a wassail song, and begging for food and drink. (2) Visiting apple orchards, particularly in cider-producing areas, and performing ceremonies aimed at securing a good crop. Both customs are attested back to the 16th century (but no farther !!!), but each suffered different fates. The first custom blended with Christmas carol singing and is pretty much defunct as a distinct tradition.  The wassail songs are still around, however, and folkies trot them out each year at Christmas:

The apple wassail tradition is a rather different story. It, too, is attested (sparsely) in the 16th century onwards, but had pretty much died out by the late 19th, and was revived in the 20th century without much information to go on concerning traditional practice. In consequence it is surrounded by the usual “ancient pagan origins” claptrap, and all manner of revivalists (especially morris dancers) join in. There was a tradition of morris dancing in the Welsh border counties, which also happen to be cider-producing regions, and these dancers did traditionally perform around Christmas. Just as with the door-to-door wassail customs, these dancers were looking for a hand out in the slack farming season, and hoping for a bit of goodwill from the farm owners who employed them. There is not a single record of morris dancers performing with wassailers prior to the late 20th century revival, where they are now ubiquitous.

Hard-core sentimentalists will tell you that the purpose of the apple orchard wassail traditionally was to awaken the tree spirits and to scare away the evil spirits hanging around to ensure a good harvest in the autumn. It’s a harmless belief, I suppose, and it’s conceivable that some people in some areas held some sort of magical ideas of the sort. But, I doubt that such beliefs were widespread. Modern people are alarmingly apt to project ridiculous superstitious beliefs on people in previous eras, as if they were both simple and stupid (but WE are so much smarter now !!). Save your pathetic narcissism. I guarantee that the vast majority of apple wassailers in history went out to the orchards to drink and have a good time, same as they do now. Nonetheless, you’ll get revival performances such as this one assuring you that the performers are continuing an ancient pagan tradition:

I guess they are having fun. All fine, but you won’t find me at any such events.

There is some evidence that certain customs had a vogue at one point, but it would not be wise to generalize them to all apple wassails in all regions, as amateurs (and even professionals) are wont to do. Apple wassails in the 19th century usually involved a procession from one orchard to the next, sometimes with an accompanying song. The song might also be sung around the apple tree, or a verse recited. For example,

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Perhaps someone in the group might be designated “king” or “queen” of the wassail, whose job it was to place a special object in the branches of the apple tree. I don’t know about this, though. When people make this suggestion, I’m tempted to think they are confusing the king and queen of Epiphany feasts with wassailing customs. Nonetheless it does seem traditional to place objects on or neat the trees. Pieces of toast dipped in mulled ale from a wassail cup, was one such tradition. Placing the toast at the foot of the trees is also attested.

I will idly entertain the speculation, for a moment only, that adorning a tree with toast dipped in ale is one way that “drink a toast” became a common expression for making a special pronouncement and then drinking. It’s possible, but there is zero evidence to support such a speculation. OED is crystal clear that there is no known origin of the phrase, stupid pontifications by Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory, notwithstanding. The show needs smarter writers.

At the end of the activities in a particular orchard there is also evidence that sometimes a designated person fired a shotgun into the branches of the apple trees. The assembled crowd might also bang pots and pans to make a racket. Scaring evil spirits away? Having a good time? You decide.

There’s plenty of recipes for “traditional” wassail recipes online if you want to go in that direction. I never liked mulled beer or cider. When I drank alcohol, if I wanted to drink cider I would go to a cider farm in Somerset or Herefordshire and buy a big jug and drink it – as is – nothing added. If you feel the need at this time of year, go ahead. I won’t be joining you. Last year I gave a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake for today, which is pretty much a no brainer. Twelfth Night parties were always dominated by a special cake.  But we’re talking about wassailing here, and if I’m not going to indulge in a wassail recipe or lambswool or whatever, I’m a bit challenged. So, I came up with wassail chicken (which could be wassail beef if you want) – a sort of coq-au-vin knock off, but using cider instead of red wine, and Christmas spices in place of the usual herbs.  I’ve added a little cognac too for good measure – reminiscent of my drinking days when I made mulled cider drinkable by adding a tot (or three) of brandy. Here’s the general outline, without precise quantities. You can replace the chicken breasts with a good cut of steak (Argentine beef would work well, I am sure). It has to be a cut that is tender and does not need a lot of cooking.

© Tío Juan’s Wassail Chicken

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy skillet over high heat, and when it is melted add 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. When it starts to smoke add boneless chicken breasts and sauté until golden on both sides. As the breasts are cooking add button mushrooms of your choice. I used wild Asian mushrooms, but you can make do with any small mushrooms as long as they are flavorful. When the breasts are nicely seared, add a splash of cognac to the pan, let if flambé, and when the flames are dying down add 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour. Stir the ingredients together so that the oil, butter, and flour form a roux with no lumps or dry spots. Add a bottle (10 fl oz) of good quality cider. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add, to taste, your choice of “Christmas” herbs: allspice, powdered cloves, nutmeg, mace, powdered ginger, and cinnamon. I tend to dump them in, one at a time, starting with allspice (because it is my favorite at Christmas), and then tasting and adding, tasting and adding. I also add a small amount of fresh red chile pepper because I like a little kick. Turn the heat to a simmer and cook the chicken to about 10 to 15 minutes – until it is barely cooked and the sauce has thickened. Serve immediately. You could serve the dish with a baked potato, noodles, rice, or what you will. I accompanied it with braised celery and spinach because I had them on hand.

Jan 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1809) of Louis Braille, inventor of a system of reading and writing for use by the blind or visually impaired. His system remains virtually unchanged to this day, and is known worldwide simply as braille. The immense personal legacy of Louis Braille was described in a 1952 essay by T.S. Eliot:

Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented – and, in this country [England], adapting the pronunciation of his name to our own language. We honor Braille when we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day.

To honor Louis Braille’s achievement, today is celebrated as World Braille Day.

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a small town about twenty miles east of Paris. He and his three elder siblings – Monique Catherine (b. 1793), Louis-Simon (b. 1795), and Marie Céline (b. 1797) – lived with their parents, Simon-René and Monique, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leather maker and manufacturer of horse tack. As soon as he could walk, Braille spent time playing in his father’s workshop. At the age of 3, he was playing with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes. A local physician bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Braille to be met the next day in Paris by a surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged eye. In agony, he suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected. The infection then spread to his other eye, likely due to sympathetic ophthalmia.

Braille survived the torment of the infection but by the age of 5 he was completely blind in both eyes. Braille did not realize at first that he had lost his sight, and often asked why it was always dark. His parents made many efforts to raise Braille in as normal a fashion as possible. He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father made him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his blindness.

Braille went to school in Coupvray until the age of 10. Then he attended one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Youth), in Paris. At the time the Institute was underfunded, but it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together. The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy, who was not blind himself, but was a philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind. He designed and manufactured a small library of books for the children using a technique of embossing heavy paper with the raised imprints of Latin letters. Readers would trace their fingers over the text, comprehending slowly.

Braille was helped by the Haüy books, but he also despaired over their lack of depth: the amount of information kept in such books was necessarily small. Because the raised letters were made in a complex artisanal process using wet paper pressed against copper wire, the children could not hope to write in this manner by themselves. So that Braille could send letters back home, Simon-René provided him with an alphabet made from bits of thick leather. It was a slow and cumbersome process, but he could at least trace the letters’ outlines and write his first sentences.

The handcrafted Haüy books all came in uncomfortable sizes and weights for children. They were laboriously constructed, very fragile, and expensive to obtain: when Haüy’s school first opened, it had a total of three books. Nonetheless, Haüy promoted their use enthusiastically. To him, the books presented a system which would be readily approved by educators and they seemed – to the sighted – to offer the best achievable results. Braille and his schoolmates, however, could detect all too well the books’ crushing limitations. Haüy’s efforts still provided a breakthrough achievement – the recognition of the sense of touch as a workable strategy for sightless reading.

Braille read the Haüy books repeatedly, and he was equally attentive to the oral instruction offered by the school. He proved to be a highly proficient student and, after he had exhausted the school’s curriculum, he was immediately asked to remain as a teacher’s aide. By 1833, he was elevated to full teacher status. For much of the rest of his life, Braille stayed at the Institute where he taught history, geometry, and algebra. Braille’s ear for music also enabled him to become an accomplished cellist and organist through classes taught by Jean-Nicolas Marrigues at the school. Later in life, he played the organ for churches all over France. Braille was a devout Catholic, and held the position of organist in Paris at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs from 1834 to 1839 (where Marrigues had played on a famous Clicquot organ), and later at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.

Braille was determined to invent a system of reading and writing that could bridge the gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words:

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.

In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army. Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend, while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school. In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called “night writing” which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak. The captain’s code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own.

Braille largely completed his system by 1824, when he was 15 years old. From Barbier’s night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency. He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 he had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille’s smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of one finger.

Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, (ironically, the same implement which had blinded him). In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier’s own slate and stylus tools. By soldering two metal strips across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable. “It bears the stamp of genius” wrote Dr. Richard Slating French, former director of the California School for the Blind, “like the Roman alphabet itself.”

The system was soon extended to include braille musical notation. Braille was passionate about his own music, and wanted a musical notation system for the blind that would be “flexible enough to meet the unique requirements of any instrument.” His first book, published in 1829, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, included music notation along with standard writing. By a strange twist of fate, this book was first printed by using the raised letter method of the Haüy system.

Although Braille was admired and respected by his students, his writing system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentin Haüy, who had died in 1822, showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and, in fact, they were actively hostile to the use of braille. Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, headmaster at the school, was dismissed from his post after he had a history book translated into braille.

Braille had always been a sickly child, and his condition worsened in adulthood. A persistent respiratory illness, long believed to be tuberculosis, dogged him, and by the age of 40, he was forced to relinquish his position as a teacher. Despite the lack of a cure at the time, Braille lived with the illness for 16 years. When his condition reached the terminal stage, he was admitted to the infirmary at the Royal Institution, where he died in 1852, two days after his 43rd birthday.

Through the overwhelming insistence of the blind pupils, Braille’s system was finally adopted by the Institute in 1854, two years after his death. The system spread throughout the French-speaking world, but was slower to expand in other places. However, by the time of the first all-European conference of teachers of the blind in 1873, the cause of braille was championed by Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage and thereafter its international use increased rapidly. By 1882, Dr. Armitage was able to report that “There is now probably no institution in the civilized world where braille is not used except in some of those in North America.” Eventually even these holdouts relented: braille was officially adopted by schools for the blind in the United States in 1916, and a universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932.

I am not a great fan of television, and I especially dislike so-called “reality” shows, which are clearly manipulated (sometimes even scripted). I used to watch chef competitions once in a while, however, not because I was interested in the competitors, but because I got inspiration from the dishes they prepared once in a while. By chance I came across a blind competitor, Christine Hà (Vietnamese: “Hà Huyền Trân) on Masterchef in 2012 when I was flipping channels one evening. I especially despise Masterchef, and really cannot watch it. Gordon Ramsay is a (carefully crafted) self-important prick, and it’s abundantly clear that his “reality” cooking shows are staged. I expect Masterchef predetermines the winner for the sake of entertaining television. The fact that Hà won seems like a no-brainer in crafting a following and good ratings. Nonetheless, her dishes are worth a look.  This was her audition to see if she would get an apron in able to be a competitor in the 3rd series.

If you are not convinced it is fake, take note of the judges’ votes. The first is enthusiastic, the second says no. So it is up to Ramsay (big drama !!!) to cast the deciding vote. I’m sure she is a good cook, and she is certainly comfortable in the kitchen. The fact that she had no rice to accompany the soup in her first dish was a major mistake. In SE Asia in general, soup is always accompanied by rice. There is no recipe given, or even shown, on the Masterchef clip, but canh chua (catfish soup) is a well-known Vietnamese dish.  Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Canh Chua

Ingredients

½ lb catfish steaks (on the bone)
2 tbsp fish sauce
8 cups chicken stock
5 tbsp granulated sugar (or to taste)
2 tbsp tamarind powder
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 medium size taro stem (sliced thin)
2 cups bean sprouts
4 large tomatoes, quartered
1 Thai pepper, sliced thin.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp fresh Thai Basil, sliced in thin strips

Instructions

Douse the catfish with fish sauce, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes (preferably refrigerated overnight).

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a large pan. Add the catfish, with its juices, and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim any scum that rises as the fish cooks.

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and sauté the garlic until it is pale golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry with paper towels. Mix with the chile and basil, and set aside.

Add the tomatoes, taro stems, sugar, tamarind, and salt to the soup, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the bean sprouts and immediately remove from the heat.

Serve the soup in bowls with the garlic, chile, and basil mix as a garnish. Serve plain boiled rice separately.

 

Jan 032018
 

Today is the birthday (1840) of Father Damien or Saint Damien of Molokai, SS.CC. or Saint Damien De Veuster (Dutch: Pater Damiaan or Heilige Damiaan van Molokai), born Jozef De Veuster, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who won recognition for his ministry from 1873 to 1889 in the kingdom of Hawaiʻi to people with leprosy who were required to live under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaʻi on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. During this time, while he acted as a missionary to the people of Hawaii, he also cared for the patients himself and established leadership within the community to build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, and churches. He dressed residents’ ulcers, built a reservoir, made coffins, dug graves, shared pipes, and ate poi with his hands with lepers, providing both medical and emotional support. After 11 years of caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, Father Damien realized he had also contracted leprosy when he was scalded by hot water and felt no pain. He continued with his work despite the infection but finally succumbed to the disease on 15 April 1889.

I have not thought about Father Damien since my primary school days when his story was recounted in our reader. I don’t remember what year I read the story, but I am guessing that I was 10 or 11 years old, and the story deeply affected me at the time. I have always admired selfless devotion to a cause, especially when it involves risk to one’s own health and safety.

Father Damien was born Jozef (“Jef”) De Veuster, the youngest of seven children and fourth son of the Flemish corn merchant Joannes Franciscus (“Frans”) De Veuster and his wife Anne-Catherine (“Cato”) Wouters in the village of Tremelo in Flemish Brabant in rural Belgium. Growing up on a farm, it was assumed that he would eventually take over its management. Instead, he attended college in Braine-le-Comte, then entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. He took the name of Brother Damianus (Damiaan in Dutch, Damien in French) in his first vows, presumably in honor of St Damian (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cosmas-and-damian/ ) who by synchronicity was a doctor who gave his services to minister to the sick.

Following in the footsteps of his older sisters Eugénie and Pauline (who had become nuns) and older brother Auguste (Father Pamphile), Damien became a “Picpus” Brother (another name for members of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) on 7 October 1860. His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he learned Latin from his brother, so his superiors relented and decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, Damien prayed daily before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. Three years later when Damien’s brother Father Pamphile could not travel to Hawaiʻi as a missionary because of illness, Damien was allowed to take his place.

On 9 March 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor on O’ahu. He was ordained into the priesthood on 21 May 1864, at what is now the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, originally built by his religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Today it serves as the Cathedral of the Bishop of Honolulu. In 1865 Father Damien was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi. While Father Damien was serving in several parishes on Oʻahu, the kingdom of Hawaiʻi was struggling with a labor shortage and a public health crisis. Many of the native Hawai’ians had high mortality rates due to the spread of such Eurasian infectious diseases as smallpox, cholera, influenza, and whooping cough, brought to the Hawai’ian Islands by foreign traders, sailors, and immigrants. Thousands of Hawaiians died of such diseases, because they had no acquired immunity.

It is believed that Chinese workers carried leprosy (later known as Hansen’s disease) to the islands in the 1830s and 1840s. At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and incurable. In later years, the medical community determined that roughly 95% of humans are immune to leprosy and, in the 20th century, developed effective treatments. In 1865, out of fear of the spread of leprosy, Hawai’ian king Kamehameha IV and the Hawai’ian Legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”. This law quarantined the lepers of Hawai’i, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony of Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed. Kalawao County, where the two villages are located, is separated from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge. Even in the 21st century, the only land access is by a mule trail. From 1866 to 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine.

The Royal Board of Health initially provided the quarantined people with food and other supplies, but it did not have the resources to offer proper health care. The kingdom of Hawaii had planned for the lepers to be able to care for themselves and grow their own crops, but, due to the effects of leprosy and the local environmental conditions of the peninsula, this plan was impractical. According to researcher Pennie Moblo, accounts about the colony from the 19th until well into the 20th century overstated its poor condition, adding to the colonial narrative of Europeans as saviors of the colony and the island. But most of the houses and other buildings were constructed and owned by the residents, even after the change of government and increased investment by the Territory of Hawaiʻi.  Meanwhile the narrative of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) what that, “Drunken and lewd conduct prevailed. The easy-going, good-natured people seemed wholly changed.” Such accounts fulfil contemporary European ideas about the Hawaiians rather than being an accurate record of conditions.

There is evidence that lay volunteers offered to help on the island, and that the Hawaiians would have preferred a native priest, if one had been available. While Bishop Louis Désiré Maigret, the vicar apostolic of the Honolulu diocese, believed that the lepers needed a Catholic priest to assist them, he realized that this assignment carried a  high risk of infection. He did not want to send anyone “in the name of obedience.” After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go, among them Father Damien. The bishop planned for the volunteers to take turns in rotation assisting the inhabitants.

On May 10, 1873, the first volunteer, Father Damien, arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa, where 816 lepers then lived, and was presented by Bishop Louis Maigret. At his arrival he spoke to the assembled lepers as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.” Damien worked with them to build a church and establish the parish of Saint Philomena. In addition to serving as a priest, he dressed residents’ ulcers, helped build a reservoir, homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao, he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” It is said that Father Damien told the lepers that despite what the outside world thought of them, they were always precious in the eyes of God. Under the leadership of Father Damien, laws were more strongly enforced, working farms were more organized, and schools along with an education system were established.

Some historians believe that Father Damien was a catalyst for turning the community around. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks were upgraded and improved as painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. However, many such accounts completely overlook the roles of superintendents who were Hawaiian or part Hawaiian. William P. Ragsdale, who was part Hawaiian, served as an interpreter as well as in other government posts. After finding that he had contracted leprosy, he “gave himself up to the law”, and was appointed to serve as superintendent at Kalaupapa in 1873. He led it until his death in 1877. Father Damien succeeded him briefly as superintendent, but he gave that up after three months in February 1878 in favor of another appointee. His superiors did not want priests serving in government posts.

King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When crown princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of the residents to read her speech, but she did subsequently share her experience, lauding Damien’s efforts. Consequently, Damien became internationally known in the United States and Europe. US Protestants raised large sums of money for his work and the Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies to the settlement. It is believed that Damien never wore the royal medal, although it was placed by his side at his funeral.

Father Damien worked for 16 years in Hawaii providing comfort for the lepers of Kalaupapa. He prayed at the cemetery of the deceased, and comforted the dying at their bedsides. In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing and realized he had contracted leprosy after 11 years of working in the colony. This was a common way for people to discover that they had been infected with leprosy. Residents said that Damien continued to work vigorously to build as many homes as he could and planned for the future of programs he had established.

In 1885, Masanao Goto, a Japanese leprologist, went to Honolulu and treated Damien. He believed that leprosy was caused by a diminution of the blood. His treatment consisted of nourishing food, moderate exercise, frequent friction to the benumbed parts, special ointments, and medical baths. The treatments did relieve some of the symptoms and were very popular with the Hawai’ian patients. Damien had faith in the treatments and said he wanted to be treated by no one but Goto, who eventually became good friends with Father Damien. Despite the illness slowing down his body, in his last years, Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He tried to complete and advance as many projects as possible with his time remaining. While continuing to spread the Catholic faith and aid the lepers in their treatments, Damien completed several building projects and improved orphanages. Four volunteers arrived at Kalaupapa to help father Damien as he weakened: a Belgian priest, Louis Lambert Conrardy; a soldier, Joseph Dutton (an American Civil War veteran who left behind a marriage broken by alcoholism); a male nurse, James Sinnett from Chicago; and Mother Marianne Cope, who had been the head of the Franciscan-run St Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, New York. Conrardy took up pastoral duties; Cope organized a working hospital; Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community’s buildings; and Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of illness.

With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages, and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on 23 March 1889, and on 30 March he made a general confession. Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on 15 April 1889, aged 49. The next day, after Mass said by Father Moellers at St. Philomena’s, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.

In January 1936, at the request of King Leopold III of Belgium and the Belgian government, Damien’s body was returned to his native land in Belgium. It was transported aboard the Belgian ship Mercator. Damien was buried in Leuven, the historic university city close to the village where he was born. After Damien’s beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.

It’s not as hard as you might think to conjure up a dish to celebrate father Damien’s mission that is both Belgian and Hawai’ian. Belgian waffles, due to US influence, have become a standard breakfast feature in Hawai’i and are frequently given a Hawai’ian twist by topping them with coconut and pineapple instead of European fruits and berries. You don’t need much more in the way of a recipe than I have already given you.  There’s a recipe and video on making Belgian waffles here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/corpus-christi/  Follow the recipe, but change things up with pineapple and coconut, or whatever tropical fruits appeal. Papaya and/or mango would work just fine.

Jan 022018
 

No, I am not talking about Spock’s home planet, I am talking about a planet that was hypothesized to lie in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun which had been dubbed Vulcan by astronomers of the time.  On this date in 1860, Urbain Le Verrier, chief proponent of the existence of Vulcan, announced the discovery of Vulcan, based on observations by amateur astronomer, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, to a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris.  Subsequently, a number of reputable investigators became involved in the search for Vulcan, but no such planet was ever found. Rather, the peculiarities in Mercury’s orbit that led to Le Verrier’s hypothesized planet, have now been accounted for by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Here we have a clear case of seeing something that’s not there because you are convinced it ought to be – the opposite phenomenon of failing to see something within your field of vision because you are convinced it does not exist (a well known and well documented phenomenon).

In 1840, François Arago, the director of the Paris Observatory, suggested to Le Verrier, a French mathematician, that he work on the topic of the planet Mercury’s orbital motion around the Sun. The goal of this study was to construct a model based on Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. By 1843, Le Verrier published his provisional theory on the subject, which would be tested during a transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun in 1843. As it turned out, predictions from Le Verrier’s theory failed to match the observations. Le Verrier renewed his work and, in 1859, published a more thorough study of Mercury’s motion. This was based on a series of meridian observations of the planet as well as 14 transits. The rigor of this study meant that any differences from observation would be caused by some unknown factor. Indeed, there still remained some discrepancy. During Mercury’s orbit, its perihelion advances by a small amount each orbit, technically called perihelion precession. The phenomenon is predicted by classical mechanics, but the observed value differed from the predicted value by the small amount of 43 arcseconds per century.

Le Verrier postulated that the excess precession could be explained by the presence of a small planet inside the orbit of Mercury, and he proposed the name “Vulcan” for this object. In Roman legend, Vulcan was the god of both beneficial and hindering fire, including the fire of volcanoes, making it an apt name for a planet so close to the Sun. Le Verrier’s recent success in discovering the planet Neptune using the same techniques lent strong credence to his claim, and astronomers around the world attempted to observe a new planet there, but nothing was ever found.

Lescarbault’s observatory

On 22 December 1859, Le Verrier received a letter from French physician and amateur astronomer Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, who claimed to have seen a transit of the hypothetical planet earlier in the year. Le Verrier took the train to the village of Orgères-en-Beauce, 70 kilometers (43 mi) southwest of Paris, where Lescarbault had built himself a small observatory. Le Verrier arrived unannounced and proceeded to interrogate Lescarbault. Lescarbault described in detail how, on 26 March 1859, he noticed a small black dot on the face of the Sun, which he was studying with his modest 3.75 inch (95 mm) refracting telescope. Thinking it to be a sunspot, Lescarbault was not at first surprised, but after some time had passed he realized that it was moving. Having observed the transit of Mercury in 1845, he guessed that what he was observing was another transit, but of a previously undiscovered body. He took some hasty measurements of its position and direction of motion, and using an old clock and a pendulum with which he took his patients’ pulses, he estimated the duration of the transit at 1 hour, 17 minutes and 9 seconds (much too fast to be a sunspot).

Le Verrier was satisfied that Lescarbault had seen the transit of a previously unknown planet. Thus on January 2nd, 1860 he announced the discovery of Vulcan to a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Lescarbault, for his part, was awarded the Légion d’honneur and invited to appear before numerous learned societies. Not everyone accepted the legitimacy of Lescarbault’s “discovery,” however. An eminent French astronomer, Emmanuel Liais, who was working for the Brazilian government in Rio de Janeiro in 1859, claimed to have been studying the surface of the Sun with a telescope twice as powerful as Lescarbault’s at the very moment that Lescarbault said he observed his mysterious transit. Liais, therefore, was “in a condition to deny, in the most positive manner, the passage of a planet over the sun at the time indicated.”

Based on Lescarbault’s “transit”, Le Verrier computed Vulcan’s orbit: it supposedly revolved about the Sun in a nearly circular orbit at a distance of 21 million kilometers (0.14 AU; 13,000,000 mi) The period of revolution was 19 days and 17 hours, and the orbit was inclined to the ecliptic by 12 degrees and 10 minutes (an incredible degree of precision). As seen from the Earth, Vulcan’s greatest elongation from the Sun was 8 degrees. Numerous reports—all of them unreliable—began to reach Le Verrier from other amateurs who claimed to have seen unexplained transits. Some of these reports referred to observations made many years earlier, and many could not be properly dated. Nevertheless, Le Verrier continued to tinker with Vulcan’s orbital parameters as each new reported sighting reached him. He frequently announced dates of future Vulcan transits, and when these failed to materialize, he tinkered with the parameters some more.

Among the earlier alleged observers of Vulcan, the following are the most noteworthy:

Capel Lofft reported ‘an opaque body traversing the suns disc’ on 6 January 1818.

Baron Franz von Gruithuisen, on 26 June 1819, reported seeing “two small spots…on the Sun, round, black and unequal in size”

J.W. Pastorff, on 23 October 1822, 24 and 25 July 1823, six times in 1834, on 18 October 1836, 1 November 1836 and on 16 February 1837, also claimed to have seen two spots; the larger was 3 arcseconds across, and the smaller 1.25 arcseconds.

Shortly after 8 o’clock on the morning of 29 January 1860, F. A. R. Russell and three other people saw an alleged transit of an intra-Mercurial planet from London. A US observer, Richard Covington, many years later claimed to have seen a well-defined black spot progress across the Sun’s disk around 1860, when he was stationed in Washington Territory. No “observations” of Vulcan were made in 1861. Then, on the morning of 22 March 1862, between 8 and 9 o’clock GMT another amateur astronomer, a Mr Lummis of Manchester, England, saw a transit. His colleague, whom he alerted, also saw the event. Based on these two men’s reports, two French astronomers, Benjamin Valz and Rodolphe Radau, independently calculated the object’s supposed orbital period, with Valz deriving a figure of 17 days and 13 hours and Radau a figure of 19 days and 22 hours. On 8 May 1865 another French astronomer, Aristide Coumbary, observed an unexpected transit from Istanbul.

Between 1866 and 1878 no reliable observations of the hypothetical planet were made. Then, during the total solar eclipse of 29 July 1878, two experienced astronomers, Professor James Craig Watson, the director of the Ann Arbor Observatory in Michigan, and Lewis Swift, an amateur from Rochester, New York, both claimed to have seen a Vulcan-type planet close to the Sun. Watson, observing from Separation, Wyoming, placed the planet about 2.5 degrees southwest of the Sun and estimated its magnitude at 4.5. Swift, who was observing the eclipse from a location near Denver, Colorado, saw what he took to be an intra-mercurial planet about 3 degrees southwest of the Sun. He estimated its brightness to be the same as that of Theta Cancri, a fifth-magnitude star which was also visible during totality, about 6 or 7 minutes from the “planet.” Theta Cancri and the planet were very nearly in line with the center of the Sun.

Watson and Swift had reputations as excellent observers. Watson had already discovered more than 20 asteroids, while Swift had several comets named after him. Both described the color of their hypothetical intra-mercurial planet as “red”. Watson reported that it had a definite disk—unlike stars, which appear in telescopes as mere points of light—and that its phase indicated that it was approaching superior conjunction.

These are merely the more “reliable observations” of alleged intra-Mercurial planets. For half a century or more, many other observers tried to find the hypothetical Vulcan. Many false alarms were triggered by round sunspots that closely resembled planets in transit. During solar eclipses, stars close to the Sun were mistaken for planets. At one point, to reconcile different observations, at least two intra-mercurial planets were postulated.

In 1877 Le Verrier died, convinced to the end of having discovered another planet. With the loss of its principal proponent, however, the search for Vulcan abated. After many years of searching, astronomers were seriously doubting the planet’s existence. By 1915, Einstein’s theory of relativity, an entirely different approach to understanding gravity from classical, Newtonian mechanics, solved the problem. His equations predicted the observed amount of advance of Mercury’s perihelion precisely, without any recourse to the existence of a hypothetical Vulcan. The new theory modified the predicted orbits of all planets, but the magnitude of the differences from Newtonian theory diminishes rapidly as one gets farther from the Sun. Also, Mercury’s fairly eccentric orbit makes it much easier to detect the perihelion shift than is the case for the nearly circular orbits of Venus and Earth. Case closed. Vulcan does not exist. Someone needs to tell Mr Spock.

It’s a little odd to come up with a recipe to celebrate something that does not exist, but there is a little glimmer. Today is Cream Puff Day in the US. Cream puffs look a little like odd planets, and I used to love them as a boy when women at my church used to make them for “bring a basket” tea parties. Cream filled choux pastry? What’s not to love. In France, cream puffs are called profiteroles and differ only from their Australian/US cousins in being drizzled with chocolate (and sometimes filled with pastry cream rather than whipped cream – like a planet-shaped éclair).  Since Le Verrier was French, profiteroles it is. Actually, I’ve mostly covered choux paste filled with crème pâtissière   here, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/  The recipe there was more complex, though. Consider this a simplified re-run.

Profiteroles

Ingredients

Choux pastry

250ml (8 fl oz) water
125g (4¼ oz) butter
125g (4¼ oz) plain flour
¼ tsp salt
4 eggs

Filling

450ml (16 fl oz) double cream
1 tablespoon caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract

Topping

75g (3 oz) plain chocolate

Instructions

Preheat oven to 230˚C/450F

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a boil. Add the butter and stir the mixture as it melts, then return it to the boil. Add the flour and salt all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture forms a ball. Remove from the heat and add the eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously after each egg is added until you have a smooth dough. Spoon the dough (now choux pastry) in heaped tablespoons, 7cm (2 ¾ in) apart, on a baking tray.

Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven, then reduce the heat to 160˚C/320˚F and bake for 25 more minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR (the profiteroles may collapse if the temperature drops suddenly).

Remove the profiteroles from the oven, split them and remove the soft dough from the center. Turn off the oven, f and return the profiteroles to dry in the cooling oven, for 20 minutes more. Then completely cool them on a wire rack.

Whip the cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Stir in the vanilla and sugar. Fill the profiteroles with whipped cream.  [At this point you have cream puffs.]

Melt the chocolate in a microwave or in a double boiler. Drizzle the melted chocolate over the tops of the profiteroles. Serve immediately. They do not keep long; the choux pastry softens quickly. They also do not keep long when placed in front of me.

Yield: 12 profiteroles

Jan 012018
 

On New Year’s Eve around the world there’s a certain amount of interest in following the progress of the stroke of midnight, usually starting in Sydney and then hopping from time zone to time zone.  As I write it’s about 10:30 am on January 1st and I’m well in the swing of New Year’s Day, whereas my friends in Buenos Aires, New York and Los Angeles are still waiting. So, I think it’s just as well to continue my discussion from last year about calendars and add something about time zones, because it is on January 1st that many decisions taken about these issues went into effect. Last year I talked about the gradual decision to move to January 1st as New Year’s Day — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/new-years-day/  This year I’ll talk a little about the Julian calendar and then talk about time zones.

On this date in 45 BCE the Julian calendar went into effect as the civil calendar of the Roman Empire, establishing January 1st as the new date of the new year. Actually, for over 100 years January 1st had been an important starting date in the old Roman calendar, but it was not officially recognized as the first day of the year.  Starting in 153 BCE, Roman consuls began their year in office on January 1st, but it was not until the Julian reforms of the calendar that January 1st took on the significance as the date on which the year changed. Of course, the Romans did not use BC/AD, BCE/CE, or what have you. They dated the year from the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus, using the abbreviation AUC (ab urbe condita, from the founding of the city). 1 AUC is 753 BCE.

The ordinary year in the previous Roman calendar consisted of 12 months, for a total of 355 days (lead photo). In addition, a 27- or 28-day intercalary month, the Mensis Intercalaris, was sometimes inserted between February and March. This intercalary month was formed by inserting 22 or 23 days after the first 23 days of February; the last five days of February, which counted down toward the start of March, became the last five days of Intercalaris. The net effect was to add 22 or 23 days to the year, forming an intercalary year of 377 or 378 days.

According to the later writers Censorinus and Macrobius, the ideal intercalary cycle consisted of ordinary years of 355 days alternating with intercalary years, alternately 377 and 378 days long. In this system, the average Roman year would have had ​366 ¼ days over four years, giving it an average drift of one day per year relative to any solstice or equinox. Macrobius describes a further refinement whereby, in one 8-year period within a 24-year cycle, there were only three intercalary years, each of 377 days (thus 11 intercalary years out of 24). This refinement averages the length of the year to 365.25 days over 24 years.

In practice, intercalations did not occur systematically according to any of these ideal systems, but were determined by the pontifices. So far as can be determined from the historical evidence, they were much less regular than these ideal schemes suggest. They usually occurred every second or third year, but were sometimes omitted for much longer, and occasionally occurred in two consecutive years. If managed correctly this system could have allowed the Roman year to stay roughly aligned to a tropical year. However, since the pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate’s term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power.

If too many intercalations were omitted, as happened after the Second Punic War and during the Civil Wars, the calendar would drift out of alignment with the tropical year. Moreover, because intercalations were often determined quite late, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if he were some distance from the city. For these reasons, the last years of the pre-Julian calendar were later known as “years of confusion”. The problems became particularly acute during the years of Julius Caesar’s pontificate before the reform, 63–46 BCE, when there were only five intercalary months (instead of eight), none of which were during the five Roman years before 46 BCE.

Eudoxus

Caesar’s reform was intended to solve this problem permanently, by creating a calendar that remained aligned to the sun without any human intervention. Although the approximation of ​365 ¼ days for the tropical year had been known for a long time, ancient solar calendars had used less precise periods, resulting in gradual misalignment of the calendar with the seasons. Caesar imposed a peace during the Punic War, and a banquet was held to celebrate the event. Lucan depicted Caesar talking to a wise man called Acoreus during the feast, stating his intention to create a calendar more perfect than that of Eudoxus. (Eudoxus was popularly credited with having determined the length of the year to be ​365 ¼ days). But the war soon resumed, and Caesar was attacked by the Egyptian army for several months until he gained the victory. He then enjoyed a long cruise on the Nile with Cleopatra before leaving the country in June 47 BCE.

Sosigenes

Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BCE and, according to Plutarch, called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time to solve the problem of the calendar. Pliny says that Caesar was aided in his reform by the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria who is generally considered the principal designer of the reform. Sosigenes may also have been the author of the astronomical almanac published by Caesar to facilitate the reform. Eventually, it was decided to establish a calendar that would be a combination between the old Roman months, the fixed length of the Egyptian calendar, and the ​365 ¼ days of Greek astronomy.

The first step of the reform was to realign the start of the calendar year (1 January) to the tropical year by making 46 BCE (708 AUC) 445 days long, compensating for the intercalations which had been missed during Caesar’s pontificate. This year had already been extended from 355 to 378 days by the insertion of a regular intercalary month in February. When Caesar decreed the reform, probably shortly after his return from the African campaign in late Quintilis (July), he added 67 more days by inserting two extraordinary intercalary months between November and December.

Because 46 BCE was the last of a series of irregular years, this extra-long year was, and is, referred to as the “last year of confusion”. The new calendar began operation after the realignment had been completed, in 45 BCE. The Julian months were formed by adding ten days to a regular pre-Julian Roman year of 355 days, creating a regular Julian year of 365 days. Two extra days were added to January, Sextilis (August) and December, and one extra day was added to April, June, September and November. February was not changed in ordinary years, and so continued to be the traditional 28 days. Thus, the ordinary (i.e., non-leap year) lengths of all of the months were set by the Julian calendar to the same values they still hold today. Remember that fact. Much is made of the transition to the Gregorian calendar that we use today, but, in reality, the reform to the Julian calendar was the BIG change. The years, months, and days in ancient Rome would be completely familiar to us. The calendar before the reform would not be. The Gregorian reform was a bit of minor tinkering because 365 ¼ is a tiny bit too much. Every 400 years the Julian calendar gained 3 days on the sun, so that by the 16th century it was noticeably out of line – hence the need for reform. But . . . the Gregorian year looks exactly the same as the Julian year; it’s just the calculation of when leap years occur that’s a bit different – very, very slightly.  Creating time zones was the next major change.

According to the (apparent) motion of the sun, the time when it is midday on earth is constantly changing. If you live 20 miles west of me, midday, as calculated by the sun, will be slightly later for you than it will be for me. Technically, if you are 20 paces west of me, midday will be slightly later for you than for me, but the difference will be tiny. Midday is always on the move. When you live in a world where people do not move much (except sailors at sea), and where instant forms of communication such as the telegraph and the telephone do not exist, what time it is where you are versus what time it is where I am is of little to no consequence.  Therefore, it was not until the late 19th century, when there were trains and telegraphs, that world times had to be standardized. Thus, in 1885, 25 nations adopted a system of standard time and time zones, based on a proposal put forward by Sandford Fleming several years earlier. After missing a train while traveling in Ireland in 1876 because a printed schedule listed p.m. instead of a.m., Fleming proposed using a single 24-hour clock for the entire world, located at the center of the Earth, not linked to any surface meridian. At a meeting of the Canadian Institute in Toronto on February 8th, 1879, he linked his standard time to the anti-meridian of Greenwich (now 180°). He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but they would be subordinate to his single world time, which he called Cosmic Time. He continued to promote his system at major international conferences including the International Meridian Conference of 1884. That conference accepted a different version of Universal Time but refused to accept his zones, stating that they were a local issue outside its purview. It took until 1929 for most countries to accept time zones.

Fleming

Local solar time became increasingly inconvenient as rail transport and telecommunications improved, because clocks differed between places by amounts corresponding to the differences in their geographical longitudes (four minutes of time for every degree of longitude). The first adoption of a standard time was on December 1, 1847, in Great Britain by railway companies using GMT kept by portable chronometers. The first of these companies to adopt standard time was the Great Western Railway (GWR) in November 1840. This quickly became known as Railway Time. About August 23, 1852, time signals were first transmitted by telegraph from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Even though 98% of Great Britain’s public clocks were using GMT by 1855, it was not made Britain’s legal time until August 2, 1880. Some British clocks from this period have two minute hands—one for the local time, one for GMT.

Improvements in worldwide communication further increased the need for interacting parties to communicate mutually comprehensible time references to one another. The problem of differing local times could be solved across larger areas by synchronizing clocks worldwide, but in many places, that adopted time would then differ markedly from the solar time to which people were accustomed. On November 2, 1868, the then British colony of New Zealand officially adopted a standard time to be observed throughout the colony, and was perhaps the first country to do so. It was based on the longitude 172°30′ East of Greenwich, that is 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT. This standard was known as New Zealand Mean Time.

By 1900 (not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar, incidentally), almost all time on Earth was in the form of standard time zones, only some of which used an hourly offset from GMT. Many applied the time at a local astronomical observatory to an entire country, without any reference to GMT. It took many decades before all time on Earth was in the form of time zones referred to some “standard offset” from GMT/UTC. By 1929, most major countries had adopted hourly time zones. Nepal was the last country to adopt a standard offset, shifting slightly to UTC+5:45 in 1986. Today, all nations use standard time zones for secular purposes, but they do not all apply the concept as originally conceived. North Korea, Newfoundland, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Marquesas, as well as parts of Australia use half-hour deviations from standard time, and some nations, such as Nepal, and some provinces, such as the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, use quarter-hour deviations. Some countries, such as China and India, use a single time zone even though the extent of their territory far exceeds 15° of longitude (that is, more than one hour difference from east to west).

Fleming was a Scot, so a Hogmanay recipe is in order for today. Black bun is the classic Scots dish for New Year. It used to be made in the Christmas season and eaten on Epiphany, but now it is a standard dish for Hogmanay. It’s a fairly standard fruit cake but with pastry wrapping it instead of icing.

Black Bun

Ingredients

For the pastry

300g/10½oz plain flour
75g/3oz lard, cubed
75g/3oz butter, cubed
salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten (for glazing)

For the filling

200g/7oz plain flour
300g/10½oz raisins
300g/10½oz currants
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp mixed spice (cloves, nutmeg, mace)
¼ tsp ground black pepper
100g/3½oz dark muscovado sugar
100g/3½oz mixed peel, chopped
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp whisky
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp buttermilk

Instructions

For the pastry, sift the flour into a bowl and rub in the lard and butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add a pinch of salt, the baking powder and four tablespoons of cold water and mix to a soft dough. Turn out and knead into a ball. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the refrigerator (an hour or more).

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F.

For the filling, mix together the fruit, flour, spices, and bicarbonate of soda in a large mixing bowl. Beat together the egg, whisky, and buttermilk in a small bowl. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and combine well. Take your time and be thorough in your mixing.  You will find dry pockets for some minutes as you mix.

Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with baking parchment. On a lightly floured surface, roll out two thirds of the pastry to a rectangle large enough to line the tin. Drape into the tin and press up against the sides. Spoon the filling into the tin, pressing down to compress.     Roll out three quarters of the remaining pastry to a rectangle large enough to cover the tin. Dampen the edges of the pastry with water and press the pastry lid on top to seal. Trim the edges and crimp using a fork. Roll out the remaining pastry, along with any trimmings, and use them to decorate the top. Attach them with a little water. Glaze the top with beaten egg and bake for two hours. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin before turning out.