Today is the feast of St John, sometimes also known as the feast of John the Apostle, or John the Evangelist, or both. There’s not much in the way of customs associated with the day, but I always celebrate it in my own little way because it is my saint’s day. John (and all its linguistic variants) has for millennia been a very popular name. The original Hebrew, יוחנן (Yôḥanan), is a short form of a longer name meaning “Yahweh is gracious.” It was the most popular name for newborns in the U.S. until 1924 and in England until 1950. The most popular name for newborns in England now is Jack, which, ironically, was originally a nickname for John. Many people do not realize that such names as Sean, Ewan, Ian, Hans, and Ivan are all linguistic variants of John. Others such as Johann, Jean, Jan, Jehan, and Juan are a little more obvious. Anyway, I was registered as Juan at birth, but used to use John in English-speaking countries (courtesy of my mum). My father was John and so was his father. My son was also registered at birth as John, but subsequently changed it. The name is strongly built into my patrilineage.
Some scholars over history have wanted to conflate John the Apostle with the author of five books of the Greek Bible(Gospel of John, 3 epistles, and the Revelation). I think this is a mistake on two grounds. First, I believe that both the language of these works, and their theology place them outside the time period when John the Apostle lived. Second, I do not believe these 5 books are the work of a single author. The gospel and 1 John may well have been written by the same person, but 2 John and 3 John are clearly by a different hand, and Revelation by yet another. Scholars who want to merge them into a “Johannine” corpus are, I believe, being driven by theological motives that are not consonant with historical and literary analysis.
John’s gospel and the Synoptic gospels (following Mark) are at odds in many ways. For example, Mark places the Last Supper as a Passover meal and John dates it as the day before Passover, so that the crucifixion coincides with the slaughter of the paschal lambs – buttressing his theology of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. My tutor at Oxford set me the essay, “Was the Last Supper a Passover meal?” which I dutifully agonized over. I was too green at the time to say anything sensible, let alone original. Maybe I still can’t. His argument was that John had to be right, otherwise the theology made no sense. But my tutor was a high church Anglican priest of the old school, for whom theology trumped historical analysis. I’m long past that way of thinking. John’s gospel is the cornerstone of Trinitarian thinking, and therefore anchors centuries of theology. Without it Christianity would look a whole lot different. Historically many very smart non-theologians, such as Jefferson and Newton, have found the doctrine of the Trinity unpalatable, as do I.
1 John contains some of my favorite passages, notably:
4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. 4:8 He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.
A great deal of my own personal theology hinges on this statement, especially, “God is love.” I can get pretty close to a trinitarian way of thinking if I equate God the Father with love in its totality, God the Son with love personified, and God the Holy Spirit with love manifested in individual action.
Because five books of the Greek Bible are traditionally attributed to John he is the patron of writers and associated professions: bookbinders, booksellers, compositors, editors, engravers, papermakers, printers, and publishers.
My head image here is an El Greco, depicting John holding a chalice with a dragon rising from it. This is based on the legend that John was given a chalice of poisoned wine by the emperor Domitian, but the poison rose out of the wine in the form of a dragon.
Fergus Henderson is well known in culinary circles as the master of cooking and celebrating offal. He runs a restaurant in London called St John, so why not rejoice in offal on this day when many Westerners are still trying to be creative with leftovers? Offal is, after all, “leftover” meat for great swathes of the Western world these days – more’s the pity. I’ll eschew the opportunity to glorify tripe just this once, because other offal dishes can be equally magnificent – tongue, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads, spleen, etc. Here’s a recipe I created many years ago: pig’s feet pancakes.
This concoction was inspired by a recipe for a Spanish appetizer, but I converted it to a main dish. These dainties are so, so rich that I find that even when made bite sized they have the capacity to fill the belly in just a few mouthfuls. One of the full sized ones described here will more than adequately satisfy the heartiest appetite. Be warned, though, that these delights are quite time consuming and complicated to make, so I recommend that you at least prepare the filling ahead of time. It can be made a day in advance and refrigerated. If the batter coating seems too much, the pancakes can be filled and served plain with a garlic sauce dip.
© Pig’s Feet Pancakes
4 whole pig’s feet
rich beef stock
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped crimini or black mushrooms
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried sage
½ cup flour
½ cup milk
butter for frying
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup beer
oil for frying
1 cup mayonnaise
8 garlic cloves (or 1 tbsp prepared minced garlic)
Place the pig’s feet in a saucepan and cover with beef stock. Simmer very gently for two to three hours or until they are well cooked and the meat is falling from the bones. Let the feet cool to the point where they can be handled, and separate out the bones. Run the meat and skin through the coarse blade of a food grinder or use a food processor to chop them coarsely (the point is to retain some texture to the meat). Heat the butter in a frying pan and gently sauté the chopped onion until it is soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms to the pan and continue to sauté until they begin to take on a golden color. Add the ground meat, parsley, thyme and sage and fry the whole mixture until it is heated well through. This can then be set aside.
Make the pancake batter by sifting the flour into a mixing bowl and then slowly adding the milk while stirring vigorously with a wire whisk to create a smooth mixture without lumps. If the mixture feels thick, add water until it is the consistency of custard. Add the eggs one at a time, beating vigorously. Set the batter aside to rest for 30 minutes. The most essential tool for making the pancakes is a heavy omelet pan with a 4″ to 5″ base. After the batter has rested heat the pan on high heat and add a teaspoon of butter. Let it sizzle, but do not let it brown. Swirl the butter around to coat the bottom of the pan then pour enough batter in so that the pan’s bottom is just covered with a thin layer (it will tend to puddle in the middle, so swirl it round to get an even coating. Return to high heat and shake the pan as soon as the pancake has set slightly. Flip the pancake over with a spatula, and quickly cook the other side. The pancake should have light brown mottled spots on both sides, but still be basically yellow. Turn the pancake on to a plate and repeat the process until all the batter is used (about 6 pancakes). Making the pancakes takes a bit of practice, but do not worry if they are not perfectly round or good looking; they are going to be rolled and deep fried so appearances are not important. However, it is vital to keep them as thin as possible, so the thinner the batter, the better.
Place one of the pancakes on a flat surface and put two tablespoons of filling in the center. Fold the near edge of the pancake over the filling, then fold the sides in, and finally pull the far edge down to make a tight envelope around the filling. Fill the rest of the pancakes in the same way.
Make the frying batter by sifting the flour and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Add the oil and beer and mix well to get rid of any lumps. Set aside to rest for 20 minutes. When rested, heat cooking oil in a deep fryer to 395°F (or you can shallow fry in a skillet as long as you have a depth of oil of more than ¾”). Dip each filled pancake in the batter and then deep fry until golden brown. These pancake packets will float on the hot oil, so must be turned with a slotted spoon at least once for an even browning. Remove from the oil and place on paper towels. Keep cooked pancakes hot in a warm oven until they are all fried. Serve them with a garlic dipping sauce made by crushing and mincing the garlic fine and stirring it well into the mayonnaise. Only light accompaniments are suggested — such as a tossed salad, or some lightly poached vegetables — because these pancakes are so very rich and heavy.