Apr 192017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(click to enlarge)

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

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

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

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

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.

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

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

Puff Pastes for Tarts.

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

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

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

To smother a Fowl in Oysters.

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

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

Apr 182017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Apr 172017
 

Today (2017) is Easter Monday in many Western countries – typically (but not everywhere) a national holiday for kicking back and enjoying the good weather in some easygoing way. For a good part of my life (as now), Easter Monday was folded into the Easter holidays in general (usually a week or more), so it’s not been particularly special for me. But I get it. Having an extra day before heading back to work (similar to Boxing Day) is a great idea. I’m all in favor of extra days. By happy coincidence today is also Sham El Messim in Egypt. The festival normally follows the Eastern religious calendar which, for reasons I have not figured out (readers can help me), coincides with the Western one this year.

In Egypt, the ancient festival of Sham El Nessim ( شم النسيم‎‎, literally meaning “smelling of the breeze”) is celebrated on the Coptic (i.e. Eastern) Easter Monday, though the festival dates back to Pharonic times (perhaps to about 2700 BCE). It is celebrated by both Egyptian Christians and Muslims as an Egyptian national holiday rather than as a religious one. Traditional activities include painting eggs, taking meals outdoors, and eating fesikh (fermented mullet). If I had not been renewing my passports in anticipation of my upcoming migration to Asia I would have been in Cairo today visiting family.  Oh well.

The name of the holiday is derived from the Egyptian name of the Harvest Season, known as Shemu, which means a day of creation. According to annals written by Plutarch during the 1st century CE, the Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day. After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival became associated with Easter. Over time, Shemu morphed into its current form and its current date, and by the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the holiday was settled on Easter Monday. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus moveable relative to the solar year, the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date. As Egypt became Arabic the term Shemu found a rough phono-semantic match in Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs,” which fairly accurately represents the way in which Egyptians celebrate the holiday.

In Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, (1834) Edward William Lane writes:

A custom termed ‘Shemm en-Nessem’ (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.

Traditional foods eaten on this day consist mainly of fesikh, lettuce, scallions or green onions, tirmis, and colored boiled eggs. I’ll leave making fesikh to the experts. Fesikh (فسيخ‎‎  pronounced in Egyptian Arabic like “physics”) is a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of fermented, salted, and dried gray mullet, of the genus Mugil, a saltwater fish that lives in both the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Some Egyptians make their own, but the process is lengthy and can be hazardous. Reports of food poisoning from incorrectly prepared fish show up in the news every year. The traditional process of preparing fesikh is to dry the fish in the sun before preserving it in salt, and a few families still take pride in doing it themselves. Most buy it already prepared. The occupation has a special name in Egypt, fasakhani.

Preparing tirmis is no less exacting and time consuming than preparing fesikh, and I don’t recommend it for the novice.

Tirmis is made from lupini beans. Rather surprisingly, lupini beans, in the genus Lupinus are indigenous to the Old and New Worlds. How did that happen? The Old World variety, L. albus, is high in alkaloids and so are extremely bitter unless soaked for 5 days or longer. The New World beans, L. mutabilis, are also bitter, but much less so, and, therefore, do not need as much soaking before preparing. I can get prepared as well as dried lupini beans in Italy. I’m pretty sure that they are L. mutabilis because they are not especially bitter.

Lupini beans have a venerable history: one of the oldest known domesticated plants in the Old and New Worlds. Archaeological reports record seeds of L. digitatus Forsk showing up in the tombs of Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian Pharaohs (over 2000 years BCE). Apparently they were already domesticated in those times. Seven seeds of this species were also found in the tombs of this dynasty dating back to the 22nd century BCE. Lupini were popular with the Romans, who spread their cultivation throughout the Roman Empire.

The Andean variety of lupini beans was domesticated by pre-Incan inhabitants of present-day Peru. Rock imprints of seeds and leaves, dated around the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, are exhibited in the National Museum of Lima. Cultivation was widespread in the Incan Empire, and beyond. Lupini were also used by pre-Columbian Indians in North America, such as the Yavapai people of the Grand Canyon region.

The traditional method of preparing L. albus in Egypt is to first soak the dried beans for 24 hours. Drain them, cover with fresh water, and boil them for 1 to 2 hours. Drain them again, and cover with more fresh water. Then soak, rinse, repeat for 5 days (changing the soaking water every 24 hours). The process is not tremendously time consuming or difficult – just a long, drawn out affair. I don’t quite see the point. Buy them in brine and be done with it.

The skin of lupini beans is tough, so to eat them you need to bite a hole in the skin and squeeze the inner part into your mouth. Traditional condiments, as with ful medames, include salt, olive oil, lemon juice, and powdered cumin. Very Egyptian.

Apr 162017
 

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492312589&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

Displaying colored chicken’s eggs has been an Easter custom for a very long time; just exactly how long is a matter of debate. Decorating eggs in general is an ancient art. Furthermore, eggs have been an enduring symbol of death and rebirth in numerous Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years. Thus, their association with Easter seems perfectly natural. What intrigues me is how diverse the traditions are these days.

There seems to me to be some merit in the speculation that boiled eggs were eaten at Easter for practical reasons. In the Middle Ages eggs were forbidden during the Lenten fast in some traditions, but, being Spring time, chickens did not stop laying. You can keep eggs for quite some time without spoilage, but not forever. Three weeks is about the limit. Boiling them allows you to keep them a little longer, and then at Easter, when the Lenten fast is over, they can be eaten. Boiling them with certain natural dye materials, such as onion skins or some tree barks, adds a whole new dimension – including additional decoration.

Let me just interject a quick note here about refrigerating versus not refrigerating fresh eggs. People in the US refrigerate EVERYTHING, including many items that should NOT be refrigerated. Chocolate, bread, and tomatoes, for example, will degrade much more quickly if refrigerated – but people do it anyway (not me!!). Eggs are complicated. Generally they are refrigerated in the US, but not in Europe. There is a reason for the difference. Eggs in the US are scrupulously washed before storage, and the washing removes a thin protective film which they acquire from the hen in the laying process, making the shells porous and open to invasion by harmful bacteria. So after washing they must be refrigerated. Eggs in Europe are not washed, so the protective film is preserved and they can be safely stored at room temperature. I prefer room temperature eggs for cooking under most circumstances, so when I lived in the US I had to take them out of the refrigerator some time before using them.  Here in Italy there is no need – likewise when I lived in Argentina and China. Trying to change habits in the US is almost certainly a lost cause.

There are so many different ways to decorate eggs that it would take me a fortnight to enumerate them all. One simple, very traditional, way is to affix a pattern to the eggs before boiling them in colored water so that the stain penetrates only the bare surface of the eggs. Pace eggs in the north of England are made this way (“pace” being a dialect variant of “pesach” – Aramaic for Passover/Easter, giving the common Romance words – via Latin (pascha) – for Easter such as Pascua, Pasqua, or Pâques).  Pace egging was a longstanding tradition in rural England involving a death and resurrection play and a begging song.  This traditional version comes from Burscough in Lancashire:

 

In eastern European countries, notably, Ukraine, a tradition of dyeing eggs in highly developed patterns using a wax-resist method (batik) has evolved into an art form that is still popular, with many regional variations.

Similar traditions have evolved throughout Mediterranean and Slavic cultures, and sometimes displaying them on Easter “trees”.

There is also a rather rarer tradition throughout Europe of carving lacey patterns into the uncolored shells.  This is incredibly delicate work that requires years of practice.

Chocolate eggs are a relative newcomer to the Easter scene; not possible until the perfection of techniques for making solid chocolate in the 19th century, allied with industrial processes for making hollow shapes.

Of course you can make decorative or artistic egg-shaped forms for Easter out of any material from marzipan to gold.

There’s probably no need to extol the enormous versatility of the chicken egg. Instead I’ll showcase a dish I made several years ago based on a 14th century recipe: poached egg with a saffron and ginger flavored Hollandaise. You should be able to work it out without a detailed recipe from me.

For Easter breakfast or brunch you can whip up a frittata, tortilla, omelet, or quiche is plain eggs are too bland for you. Later you can have a baked egg custard, pancake, flan, or egg-anything-you want. Let’s instead consider the virtues of eggs other than chicken eggs.

Duck. Duck eggs are not easy to find in the West, but in Chinese markets they are as common as chicken eggs and can be used in much the same way. I bought them all the time in Yunnan. They are a little more flavorful than chicken eggs – perhaps earthier.

Quail. Once quail eggs were hard to find in the West, but I have no trouble getting them in northern Italy now. They’re a little fiddly to cook with.  You can boil them, but peeling them is a chore. I usually fry them, but you’ll need quite a few if you are making a meal of them !!! In China they have special utensils for frying them in a row on a stick. This is a great street snack. Usually I chose the option of dusting them with a hot spicy powder. The fun is in the size more than the taste. They’re not so different from chicken eggs in that regard.

Goose. The goose egg is larger than duck or chicken eggs and is decidedly more robust in flavor. They’re hard to find and I don’t care to go to the trouble these days because I’m not a fan of the taste.

Ostrich. I’ve never seen ostrich eggs for sale outside of Africa, and even there they are not common. Ostriches don’t produce very many eggs and breeders generally use them to make more ostriches. They are gigantic with an exceedingly tough shell that takes a hammer, or the like, to break into. One egg will serve more than one person – scrambled or made into an omelet. They are delicious if you can ever get hold of one that is fresh enough to eat.

Apr 152017
 

Today is known as Easter Saturday in England and parts of the former Commonwealth, although the name is a trifle confusing to some. Going strictly logically, Easter Saturday should be the Saturday in Easter week, that is, the week after Easter, not the day before, which by the same logic should be Holy Saturday (the Saturday in Holy Week). You can call it Holy Saturday if you like, I’ve always called it Easter Saturday.

Easter Saturday is a rather quirky day in my experience, although what happens on that day has varied a lot in the different countries where I have lived over the years. In England in the late 1960s and early 1970s it felt a bit strange squeezed between the solemnity of Good Friday and the celebrations of Easter Sunday. People just went about their ordinary business as if it were any old Saturday. I had trouble making sense of it. Often, if it fell early enough, it was Boat Race day and I got into the spirit of that. More importantly it has always been the day when the Bacup Britannia Coconut dancers do a tour of the town from boundary to boundary. I went for several years when I lived in the Midlands. It’s something else.

England is loaded with seemingly bizarre calendar customs that defy the imagination. The Padstow Old ‘Oss and Abbots Bromley Horn Dance spring to mind immediately. Haxey Hood and the Whittlesea Straw Bear are not far behind. Bacup has always struck me as the oddest of them all and, of course, is surrounded by stupid speculations about “origins” which used to drive me to distraction. The dancers themselves buy into this nonsense. According to the semi-official history on their website the dance was either brought to Bacup by Barbary pirates or by Moors who had migrated to Cornwall to work in the tin mines, and then relocated to the Lancashire quarries. Does anyone in their right mind actually believe such absurd crap? Other unverifiable information – repeated endlessly on the internet with ZERO evidence – is that there are “similar” dances performed in Provence called “Danse des Coco.” I roll my eyes. A little digging will reveal to you that five troupes performed related dances in the Rossendale Valley in the late 1850s and Bacup’s original troupe, the Tunstead Mill Nutters, was one of them. So much for Barbary pirates.

The enduring mystery is who came up with the idea in the first place. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s black our faces, put on frilly skirts and clogs, and dance in the streets clacking wooden discs on our hands and knees.” “Aye, lad, graidly !!” According to the Burnley Gazette, a man named Abraham Spencer (1842–1918) was one of the founders of the Tunstead Nutters back in 1857, at age 15 !! The Tunstead dancers passed on their tradition to workers at the Britannia Mill in Bacup in the 1920s, by which time the other groups had faded into oblivion.

There are some old photos of the other groups knocking around and the Rochdale Coconut Dance tune is extant. A great many English calendar customs fell out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. That Bacup held on is remarkable. Here’s a couple of samples from recent years:

It’s amazing to me that this should be such an extraordinary event, yet is not drowned in a sea of folkies every year. True, the town center is mobbed in the middle of the day, but if you attend early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the dancers are nearer the boundaries, spectators are thin on the ground – just the die hards (like me).

The route and order of events do not change much. After a bit of a warm up dance (and drinks) at the start, the Stacksteads Silver Band sets off, in single file, down the middle of the road, and the dancers split into 2 groups of 4, directed by a whipper-in, and dance on either side of the road – alternating stopping to perform and jogging along the road. Progress is slow and steady. In the town center around midday, the teams split up and perform in various pubs. Otherwise, along the way they pause to perform 8-man garland dances. It’s a grueling day for the dancers, but they are always in good spirits until the end. If you follow the dancers all day you won’t get the tune out of your head for a looooong time.

Lancashire Butter Pie is a suitable dish for the day because it is local to the south Pennine region and because it is suitable for the last day of Lent, being meatless (if you ignore the butter, and the dripping in the pastry). I don’t know why it is called butter pie since the filling is more potatoes and onions than butter. It’s certainly a humble dish, eaten by mill workers, and I find it pleasant accompanied by some pickles and Lancashire cheese.

Lancashire Butter Pie

Ingredients

200 gm flour
50 gm butter, cut in chunks
50 gm dripping (or vegetable shortening)
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced.
salt and pepper

Instructions

Make pastry by combining the flour and dripping with a pastry cutter or in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Add enough cold water a little at a time until the pastry just comes together in a ball.  Wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, parboil the potatoes and onions for around 20 minutes. The potatoes should be cooked, but not soft.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Roll the pastry to make 2 crusts. Line your pastry dish with one crust, then layer in the potatoes and onions mixed with the butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Top with the second crust and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.

Apr 142017
 

Today is Good Friday this year (2017). Good Friday commemorates the execution by crucifixion of Jesus and in most Christian denominations it is a very solemn day. When I was a youth in Australia and England not much happened in churches on Good Friday and pretty much everything was closed: shops, pubs, restaurants, etc. It was a rare public holiday when only the most essential workers reported for work. Absolutely everyone else had the day off. Any worker on an hourly wage who had to work received triple pay which was highly unusual (Christmas was the only other day when this was mandated). Double pay was the normal rate for overtime on holidays. The crucifixion may be the most painted subject in Western art history.

What happens on Good Friday ecclesiastically represents a deep divide between Catholic and Protestant traditions historically although these days there is some merging of ideas as some Protestant denominations become a bit more attuned to the re-enactment of Biblical events. One cannot help but be struck by the fact that all Catholic churches are dominated by a crucifix and Protestant churches emphasize the empty cross. It was drilled into me as a boy in the Presbyterian church that our focus is on the resurrection and not Christ’s suffering. I won’t belabor the point. When I was a parish minister some of my churches went on cross walks around the town on Good Friday with other denominations, and I joined in – semi-reluctantly.  Public displays of this sort do not appeal to me. The crucifixion was a hideous act of torture perpetrated on an innocent man, but it happened 2000 years ago. Whilst I abhor the act utterly, it is over.

The events of Easter were probably fixed very early in oral and written narrative because there were some eye witnesses to actual events. But these narratives are unsatisfactory as history as they are retold in the various gospel versions. Even if you accept the idea that the gospels were written by the men they claim as authors (which I don’t), none was a direct eye witness (although John obliquely claims to have been there). The much more likely story is that when Jesus was arrested, all the apostles scattered in fear of their own lives. The story of Peter’s famous denial of his association with Jesus during his trial is perhaps symbolic of what they all actually did at the time. The gospels all report that the women who had followed Jesus as disciples had no such qualms, and they both actively and visibly lamented his fate on his way to Golgotha and on the cross itself.

Slanting the interpretation of actual events to suit a particular ideology is not an invention of modern journalism. The gospel writers were masters of this trade. This is what we know. Jesus was arrested in the suburbs of Jerusalem in the evening after having dinner with his closest associates, he was tried and condemned to death, and was crucified. I don’t think many serious historians would dispute these bare facts, but there is endless speculation concerning the details.

The point that I want to emphasize is that ALL the gospels want to whitewash the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and lay the blame for Jesus’ execution squarely on the Jewish Temple authorities. The thing is that at the time Jewish authorities had wide latitude because the Romans feared insurrection in a troublesome province that could not be subjugated in the way that other parts of the empire had been. Religion was an especially touchy subject. Things finally came to a head roughly 35 years later in 70 CE when the Romans, tired of all their accommodations, simply crushed the people in a mass slaughter, destroyed the Temple, and dispersed the remnant of the population. The Romans were most decidedly in charge, although the Jewish leaders held considerable influence in Jesus’ day. So what really happened?

The gospel narratives are highly unsatisfactory. Their thrust is patent. According to the gospel writers, the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus out of the way because he was subverting their authority and they used the Roman governor as their shill to accomplish what they could not do legally. Pilate is made out to be an insightful man who just wants to keep the peace. His examination of Jesus leads him to two conclusions: that he is entirely innocent, and that he really is the Jewish Messiah. But . . . for the sake of order in the province he’s willing to go along with what the Temple priests apparently earnestly want. Just to underscore the point the gospels create this scene of Pilate displaying Jesus and Barabbas to the Jewish mob and asking which one they want freed, because, as governor, he has license to free one condemned man at Passover. The mob is content to free a murderer and let Jesus die. Can we really accept this scene historically?

That Jesus was condemned to death is beyond dispute. That a mob was asked to choose between him and another condemned man is highly questionable. Are we expected to believe that for a week Jesus was surrounded by adoring fans who were so loyal that the priests were afraid to even go near him, yet these very same people all of a sudden turned on him and wanted him dead? This strains credulity to the breaking point, although it makes good reading. Yup, mobs are fickle. This theme, in fact, permeates the gospels: Jesus performs miracles time and again, yet people, whilst being amazed at the time, simply turn away and go about their business. Why would they not do the same at a critical juncture?

It is unlikely in the extreme that Pilate had the capacity to release a condemned man on a holiday, and that, even if he had such leeway, he would use it. He decides Jesus is utterly innocent and Barabbas is completely guilty but lets the mob decide their fate? Seriously? I’ll happily accept that Roman authorities were arbitrarily capricious, but not that wanton. They had no qualms about crucifying hundreds of slaves who revolted to make a point; I can’t see Pilate letting a convicted murderer go on a whim.

Inasmuch as we can get at the truth at all I suspect that things were much less clear cut at the time. Certainly it was Passover time and feelings were high in Jerusalem. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the provinces had flocked into the city for this special occasion. Such pilgrims were especially attuned to the tenets of Jewish faith, otherwise they wouldn’t have been there. Many of them were taken with Jesus’ teaching because it was revolutionary. He was not condemning Jewish faith at root: far from it. He clearly affirmed the basics of Jewish teaching, but asserted that its basics had been subverted by rigid legalists, and the foundational message had been lost. Love (of God and others) comes first and the Law grows out of that, not the other way round. It’s that simple.

Some people were attracted to Jesus’ teaching, others weren’t. The Temple priests, notably, were not amused and wanted him out of the way. He was disrupting centuries old tradition that anchored Jewish identity (as well as their places in the hierarchy), even though it’s clear that he was a devout Jew in honoring the Passover, the Torah, and the like. His message was basic: “follow the spirit of the Law, not the letter.” The Romans would have been on edge at the time because the Passover’s clear message was that historically the Jews were enslaved by Egypt, but were miraculously freed under Moses. They could easily transform this message into rebellion against their current oppressors. The overarching outline of the gospels’ narrative is, therefore, likely to be accurate. Jesus was betrayed by one of his associates to the Temple priests, who, in turn, handed him over to the Roman leadership for disposal. The Romans were probably happy to oblige to keep the peace with the powers that be in the Jewish community, and that was that. All of Pilate’s wise philosophizing and hand wringing (and washing), is almost certainly an invention. This guy is a troublemaker; get rid of him. Case closed. His followers were left to make sense of all that followed.

Hot cross buns are the enduring staples of England and the nations of the former empire on this day. Good Friday just isn’t the same without one. I’ve never baked them myself because I’ve never seen the point. They are available, sometimes fresh from the oven, in bakeries and supermarkets worldwide. I can’t do any better.

Passionfruit strikes me as a much more interesting, and apposite, possibility for the day. I love the flowers and the fruit, which I use in a variety of ways. Early colonial missionaries in Latin America, when they discovered the indigenous vines, quickly exploited the complex flowers as a teaching tool. The flower has spikes protruding from the center, symbolizing the crown of thorns. Three stigmata symbolize the three nails and five anthers represent the five wounds Jesus received on the cross. The flower’s trailing tendrils were likened to the whips used in his scourging.

The vines are found everywhere these days. I’ve come across them in Argentina, Australia, Madeira, Kenya, Bermuda, China, and even spreading abundantly over a neighbor’s door when I lived for a short spell in the Oxfordshire countryside a few summers ago. As a boy I liked to have a passionfruit scooped out over vanilla ice cream – and still do. It’s a very easy and tasty treat. It’s hard to find unadulterated passionfruit juice, nectar, or preserves because of the expense involved. I don’t like mixtures with other fruit because the plain passionfruit pulp’s taste is exquisite. I’ll buy them only if I have no other choices. I have made passionfruit ice cream, which was heavenly, and soon gone.  Today I am making fresh whipped cream (unsweetened) with passionfruit pulp folded in. Sugar spoils the natural taste for me. All I’ll need is a spoon.

 

Apr 132017
 

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. The day goes by various names worldwide depending on local religious affiliations (and language – of course). Some include Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, and Thursday of Mysteries. It is the day on which Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with the apostles according to the gospels, and the day itself as well as the Last Supper celebrates a number of traditions in Christian churches. Perhaps of prime importance is the institution of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper during the meal, but there’s also Jesus’ washing of the apostle’s feet, and his betrayal by Judas that night and the accompanying trial. There’s just way too much for me to review in any kind of detail. I’ll just hit some key points.

First let’s consider the word Maundy. The word is obscure but the majority of scholars accept the notion that the English word “maundy” is derived through Middle English from Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum (also the origin of the English word “mandate”), the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another”) in the Latin Vulgate, a statement Jesus made in the Gospel of John 13:34 to explain to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. By these lights the emphasis of the day is on humility, and many longstanding customs support this notion.

The Washing of the Feet is a traditional component of the celebration among many Christian groups, including the Armenian, Ethiopian, Eastern Catholic, Schwarzenau (German Baptist) Brethren, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic traditions. The practice is also becoming increasingly popular as a part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, as well as in other Protestant denominations.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the ritual washing of feet is now associated with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which celebrates, in a special way, the Last Supper of Jesus, before which he washed the feet of his twelve apostles. Evidence for the practice on this day goes back at least to the latter half of the 12th century, when “the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner.” From 1570 to 1955, the Roman Missal printed, after the text of the Holy Thursday Mass, a rite of washing of feet.

In 1955 Pope Pius XII revised the ritual and inserted it into the Mass. Since then, the rite is celebrated after the homily that follows the reading of the gospel account of how Jesus washed the feet of his twelve apostles (John 13:1–15). Some persons who have been selected – usually twelve, but the Roman Missal does not specify the number – are led to chairs prepared in a suitable place. The priest goes to each and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and dries them. In a notable break from the 1955 norms, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome in 2013. At one time, most of the European monarchs also performed the Washing of Feet in their royal courts on Maundy Thursday, a practice continued by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the King of Spain up to the beginning of the 20th century In 1181 Roger de Moulins, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller issued a statute declaring, “In Lent every Saturday, they are accustomed to celebrate maundy for thirteen poor persons, and to wash their feet, and to give to each a shirt and new breeches and new shoes, and to three chaplains, or to three clerics out of the thirteen, three deniers [coins] and to each of the others, two deniers”.

Distributing Maundy money is a key element of royal services in England that continues to this day. The first English monarch to be recorded as distributing alms at a Maundy service was John, who on 15 April 1210 donated garments, forks, food, and other gifts to the poor of Knaresborough, Yorkshire. John is also the first English monarch to be recorded as giving gifts of small silver coins to the poor when in 1213 he gave 13 pence to each of 13 poor men at a ceremony in Rochester—the number being symbolic of the Twelve Apostles together with either Jesus or an angel.

By 1363 the British monarch performed foot washing and also gave gifts: that year, fifty-year-old Edward III gave fifty pence to each of fifty poor men. It is not known, however, whether it was as yet the practice each year to have the number of pence and the number of recipients track the monarch’s age: Henry IV was the first monarch to decree that the number of pence given be determined by the monarch’s age.

Although Mary I and Elizabeth I differed religiously, both performed elaborate Maundy ceremonies. Records from 1556 show that Mary washed the feet of forty-one poor women (reflecting her age) while “ever on her knees”, and gave them forty-one pence each, as well as gifts of bread, fish, and clothing, donating her own gown to the woman said to be poorest of all. In 1572, disliking the scenes as each woman tried to secure a piece of the royal gown, Queen Elizabeth granted a sum of £1 to each recipient in lieu of the gown, giving it in a red purse.

The service was usually held somewhere near London. This was done to suit the monarch’s convenience: in medieval times, it was held in Windsor, Eton, Richmond, Greenwich, or wherever the monarch happened to be at Eastertide. In 1714, with the monarch no longer present at the ceremony, the service was moved to the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, where it remained until 1890, when the Chapel was given to the Royal United Services Institute. After 1890, by order of Queen Victoria, it was moved to Westminster Abbey, though in years when there was a coronation and the Abbey was closed for preparations, the service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral. From 1954 to 1970, it was held in even-numbered years at Westminster, and in odd-numbered years at provincial cathedrals; since then it has, in most years, been held outside London. When the service was confined to London, recipients were customarily householders who had met their financial obligations to society, but had since fallen on hard times.

Queen Elizabeth II views the service as an important part of her devotional life. It is the only occasion on which the Queen visits others to make awards, as recipients of honors usually come to her. The Queen has directed that the service not be held in London more often than once in ten years. Westminster Abbey was the site of the 2001 Royal Maundy, and again in 2011, the first ever televised. On 20 March 2008, at the Church of Ireland St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, the Queen attended the first Maundy service held outside England and Wales.

Today the recipients are pensioners, chosen on an interdenominational basis from various Christian churches for their service to their churches and communities. In most years, recipients are nominated by Christian clergy of various denominations in the diocese where the service is held. In 2011, however, as well as recipients representing Westminster Abbey, forty recipients came from the Anglican Diocese of Gibraltar  which covers continental Europe, and forty from the Diocese of Sodor and Man, which consists only of the Isle of Man. For 2012, in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, recipients were selected from all 44 dioceses in the United Kingdom for the service at York Minster.

One man and one woman are chosen for each year the Queen has lived (including the year she is currently living), and they receive Maundy money equivalent in pence to that number of years. Uniquely, in 2011 and 2012 the sovereign was the same age in two successive ceremonies (the 2011 ceremony was performed on the Queen’s 85th birthday).

When I was pastor at Stony Point Presbyterian Church in New York we used to have a token Passover meal on Maundy Thursday, including a communion service, incorporating a tenebrae with appropriate readings, and with the progressive extinguishing of candles (and the lights), until the room was in complete darkness – and the congregation left in silence (sometimes in tears) as one member hammered nails into wood in the sanctuary. Very powerful. This custom symbolized Jesus’ purported actions on that evening on the assumption that the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  The Synoptics and John differ on this. John, anxious to underscore the symbolism of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, dates the crucifixion to the day on which the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew insist that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. I’m inclined to the latter. John is a bit heavy handed with his theologizing of history. Therefore you can emulate Passover meals today if you wish. My post on Passover is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/passover/ Passover started on Monday night this year (2017) which means we are still in the middle of it because it lasts a full week.

I’m intrigued by the fact that Kerala Christians (known as St Thomas Christians because of the belief that Thomas founded churches in the region) have special recipes for this day. There were a number of Kerala priests in Stony Point when I was there, for some reason,  and I liked to share their traditions with them .The day is called Pesaha (പെസഹ), in the local Malayalam language, derived from the Aramaic for Passover (Pesach). It is a statewide public holiday declared by the Government of Kerala because of the high number of Saint Thomas Christians. The tradition of consuming Pesaha appam or Indariyappam is customary after special long services. On the evening before Good Friday the Pesaha bread is made at home. It is made with unleavened flour. A sweet drink or dip made of coconut milk and jaggery is often made to be consumed along with this bread. On Pesaha night the bread is baked or steamed in a new vessel, immediately after rice flour is mixed with water and they pierce it many times with handle of the spoon to let out the steam so that the bread will not rise ( this custom is called ” juthante kannu kuthal” in the Malayalam language meaning “piercing the bread according to the custom of Jews”). This bread is cut by the head of the family and shared among the family members after prayers.

I have zero experience with this tradition, so here’s a video. Unfortunately it’s in Malayalam, but there are adequate subtitles in English to follow the visual instructions:

Apr 122017
 

In Western Christian tradition today goes by a number of names including  Holy Wednesday and Good Wednesday. It can also be called Spy Wednesday because of certain events mentioned in the gospels. Unfortunately the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel diverge considerably on the order and timing of the major events of Holy Week although they generally agree concerning the events themselves with some minor variations as to particulars.

According to Mark (12:3-10) on the Wednesday before his death Jesus was in Bethany in the evening:

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

The chronology in John is very different.  There the event happens before the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, but in some Western liturgical traditions Mark’s chronology is accepted and gives us the name Spy Wednesday where “spy” means essentially “ambush” or “betrayal.” Two events are linked in Mark’s narrative – the anointing of Jesus and Judas’ decision to betray him – but in John the relationship is much clearer, and some added details have caused a lot of speculation.

In John it is Judas who complains about the waste of the perfume but he is accused of hypocrisy in that he didn’t want to help the poor but himself. Seeing the lost opportunity enrich himself he goes to the Sanhedrin seeking a bribe for betraying Jesus’ whereabouts. The general point is that Jesus preached openly in the daytime and generally infuriated the authorities with his message which was harshly critical of the status quo from which they all benefited. They wanted to get rid of him but were afraid to arrest him in broad daylight surrounded by a sympathetic mob.  In the evenings, however, he seemingly vanished into thin air and no one, with the exception of his closest friends, knew where he went. To seize him in the evening one of his friends would have to turn on him. Judas obliged.

The woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus is not given a name in Mark but is called Mary in John.  Luke places this whole event at a different time in Jesus life, and characterizes the woman as a sinner. Putting these diverse details together leads a few commentators to declare not only that the woman, named Mary, was a sinner, but that she was none other than Mary Magdalene. This identification is extremely problematic. Mary Magdalene comes to the fore during and after the crucifixion, it is true. She is highly prominent, especially because she is said to be the first witness to the resurrection, and the first evangelist. She is mentioned in the gospels more than most of the apostles by name. Medieval scholars conflated her with the Mary who anointed Jesus, and taking the theme from Luke, suggests she was a reformed prostitute. These are completely unwarranted conclusions. There is not a shred of evidence from the gospels that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, nor that she was the Mary who anointed Jesus. Mary (Miriam) was a very common name.

Scholars are also deeply divided as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. The darker side of all of this, that is rarely raised, is that the Romans executed him, not the Sanhedrin, but the gospels all go out of their way to blame the Sanhedrin for starting the whole process. Hence in history one of the crimes laid at the door of Jews by Christians, fueling anti-Semitism, is that they (not the Romans) killed Jesus, and so must pay for their sins.  That narrative works for the gospel writers because they, thus, avoid appearing anti-Roman at a time when being publicly anti-Roman got you killed. So, Judas betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin, not to the Roman authorities. Judas was greedy and was looking for a bribe, so he sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What really happened?

Nothing really adds up here. Why would a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle betray him at all. We could start with the idea that there were 12 apostles.  Were there really? There were 12 tribes of Israel so there is some clear symbolism being promoted here. But “the twelve” are a bit of a shadowy lot. The gospels do not agree concerning the names of all of them for starters, and clearly some are more central than others. What do you remember about Thaddeus, for example, or Bartholomew? Judas Iscariot is identified as the treasurer of the group (or keeper of the purse). Otherwise there’s nothing to single him out prior to his betrayal.

One idea that springs off the top of my head is that there was a genuine inner circle – Peter, James, and John – and a lot of hangers on who came and went, some closer than others. Judas was one of these fringe elements who was intrigued by Jesus’ message but without a lot of conviction in it.  There must have been a lot of this type – especially men. What is clear from the gospels, as well as Paul’s letters, is that the backbone of Jesus’ following were women, not men. This makes the scene of Jesus’ anointing at dinner all the more poignant. The guys just, more or less, sit around and do nothing while a woman makes a profound sacrifice of love and devotion (and one of the supposedly faithful men sneaks off and sells him down the river).  This mirrors the general state of affairs in Judah (and the Roman empire) of the day, and is still the dominant posture of many Christian denominations. They lived in, and we live in, unabashedly patriarchal societies. Was one of the major problems that Jesus had with the powers that be – Jewish and Roman – that he had a very large female following in a culture dominated by men? Hard to say, but I suspect so.

Today’s putative events took place, as did so many of Jesus’ telling moments, at the meal table. I’ve talked quite a bit about the typical cuisine of ancient Judah, so you can pick from the many standard ingredients: lentils, olives, grapes, fish (of course), as well as eggs, flatbread and the like. Meat would not have been common, and, naturally, I’ll save lamb for Sunday. The ingredient that springs to mind for today is figs because of another minor (and inscrutable) event of Holy Week. On the way to the Temple one day Jesus is hungry but when he inspects a fig tree for fruit is has none (because it is not the right season). So he curses it, and on returning it has withered. What did the tree do wrong? Would you curse an apple tree in March because it bore no apples? About the best commentators can come up with is that Jesus was symbolically cursing people who are all talk (showy foliage) and no action (fruit). Maybe so, but figs are great – dried or fresh.

When they are in season I slice fresh figs and eat them on bread with sharp cheese. The combination is unbeatable. For a truly great sandwich place figs and cheese between slices of whole grain bread and grill the sandwich on both sides until the bread is nicely toasted and the cheese melted and gooey.

Apr 102017
 

Passover begins at sundown today this year (2017). This post is the last concerning the three major moveable Jewish holy days, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot, which I have already covered. According to Torah prescriptions, Jews were required to celebrate these three festivals in Jerusalem, Passover being the most central to tradition. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is reported to have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover at least once (when he fell afoul of the law and was executed). Hence Passover and Easter are inextricably linked, but since early Medieval times the Christian church has gone to great lengths to make sure that their observations do not coincide. Given that Passover can fall on any day of the week, but Easter must fall on a Sunday, it’s not all that difficult to keep them apart. The fact that they are so close together at all this year is relatively rare.

I simply cannot imagine that the entire Jewish population in antiquity downed tools and traveled to Jerusalem three times a year. It makes no sense in practical terms. Who’s going to mind the sheep or the shop whilst everyone is making a beeline for Jerusalem? I can see it happening a few times in a lifetime, but not every single year. Passover is, however, very deeply embedded in Jewish history and tradition and continues to be an important aspect of Jewish identity to this day. Observant and non-observant Jews of all stripes have a Passover seder, at the very least, every year with varying degrees of commitment to established religious practice. Not to do so would be the equivalent of a family of Christian background not celebrating Christmas. It does happen of course. Preparing a seder is a lot of work. But almost all of the Jews that I know, even the most vehemently non-religious, mark Passover in some way or another.

If I get too deeply mired in discussing the history and evolution of Passover we’ll be here all year. So I’ll try to keep it simple (dangerously teetering on the edge of the simplistic). My views on the matter are not very popular among Jews anyway — nor most Christians either. It was one of those great turning points in my life when I learned as a first year theology student at Oxford that Biblical historians and archeologists simply did not believe that the slavery in Egypt of the Israelites, the exodus under Moses, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the ultimate conquest of Canaan, had any basis in historical fact. Say what ????  That’s pretty fundamental to Jewish (and Christian) belief. People who’ve barely cracked the Bible know about parting the Red Sea and the like. BUT . . . extra-Biblical sources for any of this narrative are non-existent, and archeology flatly contradicts all of the details. The current explanation for the appearance of the Israelites in the Levant that has the most favor among archeologists and historians (the ones who have no religious or ethnic axes to grind, that is), is that the putative 12 tribes of Israel were at the outset a loosely confederated group of related Semitic peoples who had migrated into the land from various places and unified for a time against other indigenous cultures. The centrality of Judah and Jerusalem were a consequence of the defeat and expulsion of the northern tribes by Assyria which left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south intact and soldiering on. Through a combination of relative isolation and shrewd political maneuvering they were able to tough it out a little longer until they were crushed and deported by the forces of Babylon.

The two periods that, for me (and a great many other Biblical historians), are crucial in understanding how Passover emerged and evolved as central to Jewish tradition and identity are the reforms of Josiah (649-609 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile which are inextricably linked.  Until Josiah was king of Judah the nation had managed to stave off attack by neighboring empires such as Egypt and Assyria by being relatively subservient and compliant – paying tribute, accepting multiple religious traditions and the like – as ways of keeping a low profile. Under Josiah that all changed. He came to the throne at the age of 8 and ruled for 31 years. During this time the neighboring empires were struggling with one another for supremacy and went through periods of waxing and waning fortunes. This situation left Judah in a relatively strong position to assert itself. It had no chance against the likes of Egypt or Babylon when they were at full strength, but when they were weak(er) powerful people in Judah could entertain visions of grandeur. Hence Judah under Josiah, swayed by politician-scholars, created a bold new identity and was (seemingly) ready to take on the world.

During Josiah’s middle years Judah underwent a nativist revolution led by a group now called the Deuteronomists (after one of the texts they wrote). Nativism involves stripping a culture of what it perceives as “foreign” elements (religion, literature, language, clothing, foodways, etc) and highlighting the “original” (or “native”) core as it is perceived. According to the Hebrew Bible, in his 18th regnal year (when he was 26), Josiah ordered tax money to be used to renovate the Temple and during the renovation a “Book of the Law” (sefer ha-torah) was “discovered.” Modern scholars now generally believe that the “discovery” was a plant by the Deuteronomists and the book they “discovered” was one they had written: either Deuteronomy itself or a portion of it. Josiah took the book seriously, was horrified discovering all the laws in it that were not being followed (and the penalties for such crimes against God), and immediately set about stripping away all practices that were foreign and opposed the law, and establishing all the laws that were enshrined in the document. Among other things, the law prescribed that Passover should be held in Jerusalem every year on a certain date, with explanations concerning why it was to be observed, and how. When the Temple renovations were complete and all the foreign cults removed (and their priests executed), Josiah held a massive celebratory Passover.

Thus the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the attempts by Moses to free the people from bondage, the various plagues that God sent to convince the Pharoah to release the people, and, finally, God’s commandment to an angel to kill every firstborn male in Egypt who lived in a house whose doorposts were not smeared with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, became an indelible part of the history and identity of the Jewish people – commemorated every year with the ritual slaughter and consumption of sacrificial lambs. My (not terribly well supported) conjecture is that Josiah’s great Passover was the first, and that it has been celebrated every year since following the rules laid down in Deuteronomy and other books of the Torah. The symbolism of bondage and release received a boost a generation later when the Babylonian army defeated Judah, destroyed the Temple, and deported the bulk of the population to Babylon in the period now known as the Exile or the Captivity. During this seminal period I believe that classic Jewish belief solidified. Following the return to Jerusalem, the Jews suffered multiple conquests by empires including the Greek and Roman which, again, strengthened the symbolism until in 70 CE the Romans essentially wiped out the population of Judah, destroyed the Second Temple (built after the return from the Exile) and scattered the Jews across Europe and the world with no homeland. This new Diaspora once more reinforced the Passover message of bondage, alienation, and oppression – offering an eventual release, which was partially granted by the creation of the state of Israel after 2 millennia of separation from the land.

The Passover meal, the seder, is, of course central to the celebration. Where it was once made up of (ritually slaughtered) lamb which recalled the blood of lambs saving the people in bondage, bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread, recalling the haste with which the people left Israel with no time to let the bread rise, now all but the unleavened bread are tokens. The classic seder dish, often using a special platter reserved for that one night, consists typically of a roasted lamb shank or chicken wing, a roasted boiled egg, 2 kinds of bitter herbs, a leafy herb to be dipped in salt water, and a brown sweet paste of ground fruit and nuts. Each has symbolic meaning which is explained during the meal. There are also three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle matzoh will be broken and half of it put aside for the ritual of the afikoman (a game played with children to maintain their interest and help in the process of understanding the symbolism). The top and other half of the middle matzoh will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom one will be used for the korech (Hillel sandwich).

It always seems to me a shame at these meals that these elements are merely symbolic. They are all great food items. What’s not to love about lamb, roast eggs, salty greens, horseradish, and unleavened bread washed down with cups of wine? These days the principal seder dishes vary according to the underlying ethnicity of the family. I’ve only ever attended eastern Ashkenazi seders where matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket reign supreme. There are recipes galore for these classics all over the place. Matzoh brei is a lesser known Passover treat used as a sweet interlude, and involving the central unleavened bread.

Matzoh Brei

Ingredients

2 sheets matzoh
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
vegetable oil
jam or syrup

Instructions

Break the matzoh into small places and place in a bowl.  Cover with very hot water and let steep for about 30 seconds, then drain thoroughly. Meanwhile beat the eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a skillet for very shallow frying (2 or 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.

Combine the eggs and matzoh and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4, shaping each into a thin, flat pancake.

Fry the pancakes one at a time until golden on both sides, about one minute per side (turning only once).

Serve slightly broken up with whatever jam or syrup you prefer.

Apr 092017
 

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, and the last Sunday in Lent. These days, ever since I left the U.S. and stopped preaching, Palm Sunday sometimes creeps up on my unawares.  Not this year, because I am paying attention, but it past years it has often caught me by surprise because I have been traveling for my birthday or the like. In 2012, for example, I was in Cusco for my birthday trip to Machu Picchu, and on the Sunday following I walked down to the center of town and came across dozens of women sitting in the street weaving crosses, crowns, and other decorations from palm fronds.  Everyone in town was carrying palms of some sort, and there was a generally festive atmosphere. At midday there was a gigantic parade of church and civic groups before the town’s dignitaries with hundreds of onlookers all around the main square and side roads.

The following year, again by surprise, I bumped into a local church procession in Buenos Aires near my apartment with congregants carrying olive branches and singing as they toured the block around the parish church. Palms are traditional in many countries because of the gospel narrative, but in quite a few places where palms were difficult to come by in the past, people carry, and wave, branches of olive, yew, box, willow, or other local native trees. Olive branches are standard in Rome and I believe that the custom was transferred to Argentina by Catholic monks from the Old World in colonial times even though palms are plentiful there. In fact in the gospels only John specifies palms. In the others they refer to “branches” and in Spanish this day is called domingo de ramos (Branch Sunday).

The narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before the Passover when he died is found in all the canonical gospels.  Here’s John (12:12-15):

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

The quotation at the end comes from Zechariah’s messianic prophecy (9:9), and the shouts of the people come from the Psalms (188:25-26), leading a great many Biblical historians to question the historicity of the event. Did this really happen or is this a wishful (theologically apt) construction of the gospel writers to make a point, underscoring their beliefs concerning the upcoming Easter events? Jesus proved himself to be the foretold Messiah, so he must have entered the city as a peaceful king as foretold by the prophets.

There’s a lot of ancient symbolism thrown together here and the gospels do not exactly agree on specifics. In some cases there is clear confusion. Matthew for example commands his disciples (21:2-3), 2Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” Later (21:7) the disciples lay their clothes on the donkey AND the colt and set Jesus on BOTH of them – seemingly. How they managed this is a miracle in its own right. How does one ride two animals simultaneously? What seems likely is that Matthew’s Hebrew was not up to snuff and he misread (or misunderstood) the original from Zechariah which reads:

See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey

The original Hebrew is poetry using the frequent Hebrew poetic device of duplication for emphasis. Zechariah is not saying that the king comes riding on a donkey AND a colt, but that the donkey in question is a colt, the offspring of a donkey. Duh !! The fact that the triumphal beast of burden is a donkey and not a horse is also significant. The horse as a king’s mount is a symbol of war; the donkey is a symbol of peace.

It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for people to spread clothes and branches in the path of a conquering hero. The specific identity of branches as palm fronds is unique to John. The palm was a very complex symbol in ancient times in both the Greco-Roman and Egyptian worlds which John was presumably familiar with. In the Roman Empire, which strongly influenced Christian tradition, the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory. It became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victory. For contemporary readers of John, the procession would likely have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator laid down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The palm branch later was used as a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death.

This juxtaposition of life, death, and triumph brings us back to the events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week which is a bittersweet moment in the Christian calendar observed by Catholics, Orthodox, and many mainstream Protestant denominations alike (even those that are not especially keen on Lent).  Holy Week is the climax of Jesus’ ministry when his role is made fully manifest. He preaches to huge crowds, performs miracles, and cleanses the Temple of moneychangers. He is both a hell raiser and pacifist bringing a new dispensation to the world. As such he is both praised and reviled: by the mob on the one hand, and by the Temple authorities on the other. The gospels cast the mob as terminally fickle, however. They are awed and excited by Jesus at the start of the week, and howling for his death by the end.

Jesus plays a cat and mouse game with the Temple authorities all week, openly preaching in the center of Jerusalem by day where he is kept safe by the crowds, but spiriting away in secret to the isolated suburbs at night where the authorities cannot find him until he is betrayed by one of his own. This is a teacher/preacher who has made a name for himself in the provinces but is now a grand celebrity in the capital and is making the most of it. Of course in Roman Imperial times this was an exceptionally dangerous game to play. The Romans were ever fearful of a Jewish uprising and there were many secret rebel groups bent on violent action. The Romans had no compunction in killing off ringleaders if they caught them. Scholars debate endlessly to this day as to whether it was the Romans or the Temple leaders who were responsible in actual historical fact for Jesus execution and I will have much more to say about this on Maundy Thursday. For now I will note that starting with the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday the gospel writers are setting the stage for a showdown between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and the Romans are very much in the background, seemingly innocent bystanders. I suspect that the Romans were taking much more notice than they are reported to have been.

My Lenten wreath today has only the central Christ candle lit as a stark reminder that while the world temporarily rejoices, the light of the world is moving on to face his death alone. Holy Week was a very lonely time for Jesus despite all the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem. I will extinguish the Christ candle on Good Friday.

Hearts of palm are the obvious ingredient of choice for today. Heart of palm is harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (notably the coconut (Cocos nucifera), Palmito Juçara (Euterpe edulis), Açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), sabal (Sabal spp.), pupunha and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) palms). Harvesting of many non-cultivated or wild single-stemmed palms results in the death of the tree (e.g. Geonoma edulis).  Some palm species, however, are clonal or multi-stemmed plants (e.g. Prestoea acuminata, Euterpe oleracea) and moderate harvesting will not kill the entire clonal palm.

An alternative to wild heart of palm are palm varieties which have been domesticated as farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is Bactris gasipaes, known in Ecuador as chontaduro, in Brazil and Costa Rica as palmito, and in English as the peach palm. This variety is the most widely used for canning. They are self-suckering and produce multiple stems, up to 40 on one plant, meaning that modest annual harvesting does no damage to the main plant. Another advantage that the peach palm has over other palms is that it has been selectively bred to eliminate the vicious thorns of its wild cousins. Harvesting is still a labor-intensive task, and thus palm hearts are regarded as a delicacy in many parts of the world. In the U.S. they are readily available canned and are not expensive. I always kept a can or two on hand when I lived in NY.

As is common, I used to use hearts of palm in salads, or on their own with a simple dressing. As a salad component the sliced hearts add some texture and flavor to a salad. They come packed in an acidulated liquid (typically ascorbic acid), so they can be a bit astringent. I used to like to drink the canning liquid but it may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a lot sweeter than pickle juices which I know some folks like. Salads made with all crispy components such as hearts of palm, green beans, and asparagus make a welcome change from their leafy brethren. As a simple side dish for the day – dripping with Holy Week symbolism – I suggest plain hearts of palm dressed with the flesh of passionfruit.

Hearts of palm can also be cooked. They can be plain grilled, or baked. In the latter case, slice them thickly then toss them with olive oil, finely diced garlic, chopped fresh parsley, and grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven until they are nicely golden.