Dec 072018
 

Today is probably the birthday (1805) of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, or it might have been yesterday. You never can tell with French magicians – tricky lot. His autobiography says yesterday, but birth records say today. I’ll go with today. He is widely considered the father of the modern style of conjuring. Houdini took his stage name in homage to Robert-Houdin.

Robert-Houdin was born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois. His father, Prosper Robert, was a watchmaker in Blois. Jean-Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was just a young child. When Jean-Eugène  was 11, Prosper sent him to school 35 miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. At 18, he graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Robert-Houdin wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. His penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean’s father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch shop, and for a short time worked as a watchmaker.

In the mid-1820s, he saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking) by Ferdinand Berthoud. When he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, he had received a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the better of him, and from these relatively simple volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. Subsequently he practiced at all hours of the day. He considered the mistake to be the hand of Fate setting him on his life’s path. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult due to the lack of detailed explanations provided, but the books piqued his interest in the art. So he began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist but also entertained at fairs and parties doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle and to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls tricks. He told him that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, he practiced incessantly.

Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business, doing conjuring on the side. Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs—and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund De Grisi, Count’s son and better known as Torrini. You can find key extracts from his memoirs here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20050324073949/http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/gaslight/houdin.htm

What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician in Europe and the United States. It was during this period, while at a party, that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and he fell in love with her at their first meeting. On July 8th, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece, yet embraced his new son-in-law’s ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean tinkered with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived.

Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic (lots of happy accidents in his biography). It was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol, and there he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who purportedly coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used. At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details of many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve upon them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before king Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.

Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theater. Meanwhile, he was hired by a friend, Comte de l’Escalopier, to perform at private parties. The income from the shop and his new inventions, which he sold, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be (or at least appear to be) free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed in traditional evening clothes. De l’Escalopier lent him 15,000 francs to make his vision into reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by Cardinal Richelieu. He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim, hung tasteful drapes and chic candelabras, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV.

On July 3rd, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called “Soirées Fantastiques”. No critics covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, and in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin said that the show had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. He believed that a magician should not present a trick until it was mechanically perfected to be certain of avoiding failure, and this caused him to over-rehearse. After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theater and had every intention to close it for good, until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend’s effrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run, becoming more polished and confident onstage.

With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and he began to receive critical acclaim. Le Charivari and L’Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bartolomeo Bosco. Even with all of this, still relatively few people came to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother. The following year, he added a new trick to his program that became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. He walked into the audience and touched items that the audience members held up, and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail. It caused a sensation and brought throngs to see his shows. Eventually, he changed the method, so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code was being used. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent, and his son still described every object handed to his father. At one point he made the test even more difficult. He placed a glass of water into his son’s hands, and Emile proceeded to drink from it. He was able to perceive the taste of the liquids that spectators from the audience merely thought of. Even then, the audiences were not entirely convinced, they tried to trip up Emile by bringing in books written in Greek, or odd tools such as a thread counter used by a weaver.

On one of Robert-Houdin’s side tables, he had an egg, a lemon, and an orange. He went into the audience and borrowed a lady’s handkerchief that was in style then. He rolled it into a ball. He rubbed the ball in between his hands, and the handkerchief got smaller and smaller until it disappeared, passing through to the egg on the table. He picked up the egg, and the audience expected him to crack it open and produce the spectator’s handkerchief. Instead, he made that disappear too. He told the audience that the egg went to the lemon. This was repeated with the lemon and the orange. When he made the orange disappear, all that was left was a fine powder which he placed into a silver vial. He soaked this vial with alcohol and set it on fire. A small orange tree planted in a wooden box was brought forth by one of his assistants. The audience noticed that the tree was barren of any blossoms or fruit. The blue flame from the vial was placed underneath it. The vapors from it caused the leaves to spread and sprout orange blossoms from it. Robert-Houdin then picked up his magic wand and waved it. The flowers disappeared and oranges bloomed forth. He plucked the oranges from the tree and tossed them to the audience to prove they were real. He did this until he had only one left. He waved his wand again, and the orange split open into four sections, revealing a white material of sorts inside of it. Two clockwork butterflies appeared from behind the tree. The butterflies grabbed the end of the corner of the white cloth and spread it open, revealing the spectator’s handkerchief.

When touring in Algeria, he used another famous trick to prove that French “magic” was stronger than local superstitions: he presented an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift. By turning on an electromagnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, “proving” that through his “will power”, he could make it impossible to be lifted even by the strongest Algerian warriors. He found the trick was more impressive not when he claimed that he could make the trunk heavy, but when he claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that even a small child could lift. When he performed this trick the first time, the Algerian strong man he worked it on became so enraged that he left in a fury. It took a great deal of diplomacy to convince the Algerians that his actions were all trickery and not sorcery. These and other tricks are described by Robert-Houdin himself in detail in the link I gave above.

After his mission in Algeria, Robert-Houdin gave his last public performance at the Grand Théâtre in Marseille, then returned to his home in Saint-Gervais, near his native Blois, where he wrote his memoirs, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. He also wrote several books on the art of magic. He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6th, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth. Meanwhile, Hessian Soldiers captured Paris, and Robert-Houdin hid his family in a cave near his property. Four days later, Robert-Houdin learned that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13th, 1871, he died at the age of 65.

His home in Blois is open to the public as the publicly owned La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin. It is a museum and theater first opened by his grandson Paul Robert-Houdin in April 1966.

There are videos on magic tricks in the kitchen but they are pretty lame. This one on tricks with eggs is not strictly magic, but there are some fun ideas.

Or you can go with a Loire valley regional dish such as salmon with lemon sauce to celebrate Blois.

 

May 042016
 

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Today is one of several days honoring Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, an early Christian saint and the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is remembered and honored in most Christian denominations, although on different feast days, for her Christian virtues, particularly the suffering caused by her husband’s adultery, and her prayerful life dedicated to the reformation of her son, who wrote extensively of her pious acts and his life with her in his Confessions. Popular Christian legend tells of Saint Monica weeping every night for her son Augustine.

Most of what we know about Monica comes directly from Augustine, which is far better information than is obtained from contemporary martyrologies, but personal information is, nonetheless, sketchy and conjectural. It is, for example, assumed that she was born in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her name is a Berber name, not popular in Europe until after her death, so on that basis alone she is conjectured to have been Berber. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who held an official position in Tagaste. Patricius had a violent temper and appears to have been generally dissolute. Monica’s alms, deeds, and prayer habits annoyed Patricius, but it is said that he always held her in respect. Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius and daughter Perpetua. She was unable to gain approval to baptize them, and grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill. In her distress she asked Patricius to allow Augustine to be baptized. He agreed, then withdrew this consent when the boy recovered. Monica’s joy and relief at Augustine’s recovery turned to anxiety as he misspent his renewed life being wayward and, as he himself tells us, lazy. He was finally sent to school at Madauros. He was 17 and studying rhetoric in Carthage when Patricius died.

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Augustine become a Manichaean (strong rival to Christianity) in Carthage. When he returned home he shared his views regarding Manichaeism, Monica drove him away. However, she is said to have experienced a vision that convinced her to reconcile with him. At this time she visited an unnamed bishop who consoled her with the now famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed her son to Rome, where he had gone secretly. When she arrived he had already gone to Milan and she followed him there. Here she found Ambrose and through him she ultimately saw Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance.

In Confessions, Augustine wrote of a peculiar practice of his mother in which she “brought to certain oratories, erected in the memory of the saints, offerings of porridge, bread, water and wine.” When she moved to Milan, the bishop Ambrose forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink”. So, Augustine wrote of her:

In place of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of purer petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor – so that the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated in those places where, after the example of his passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.

Mother and son spent 6 months together at Rus Cassiciacum (present-day Cassago Brianza) after which Augustine was baptized in the church of St. John the Baptist in Milan. Africa claimed them, however, and they set out on their journey, stopping at Civitavecchia and at Ostia. Monica died on the journey and Augustine’s grief inspired large sections of his Confessions.

Saint Monica was buried at Ostia, and at first seems to have been almost forgotten, though her body was removed during the 6th century to a hidden crypt in the church of Santa Aurea in Ostia. Monica was buried near the tomb of St. Aurea of Ostia, but was later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome.

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Anicius Auchenius Bassus wrote Monica’s funerary epitaph, which survived in ancient manuscripts. The actual stone on which it was written was rediscovered in the summer of 1945 in the church of Santa Aurea. The fragment was discovered after two boys were digging a hole to plant a football post in the courtyard beside Santa Aurea.

The translation reads:

Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you teach the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.

It was not until the 13th century, however, that the cult of St. Monica began to spread and a feast in her honor was kept on 4th May. In 1430 Pope Martin V ordered the relics to be brought to Rome. Many miracles are reported to have occurred on the way, and the cult of St. Monica was definitively established. Later the archbishop of Rouen, Guillaume d’Estouteville, built a church in Rome in honor of St. Augustine, the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, and deposited the relics of St. Monica in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The Office of St. Monica, however, does not seem to have found a place in the Roman Breviary before the 16th century.

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The city of Santa Monica, California, is named after Monica. A legend says that in the 18th century Father Juan Crespí named a local dripping spring Las Lagrimas de Santa Monica (“Saint Monica’s Tears”) (today known as the Serra Springs) that was reminiscent of the tears that Saint Monica shed over her son’s early impiety. As recorded in his diary, however, Crespí actually named the place San Gregorio. What is known for certain is that by the 1820s, the name Santa Monica was in use and its first official mention occurred in 1827 in the form of a grazing permit. There is a statue of Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park by sculptor Eugene Morahan, completed in 1934.

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Couscous is a fitting dish for Saint Monica both because it is a Berber/Algerian staple, probably from antiquity, and because it is the kind of food Monica could well have given to the poor. I discussed the general preparation of couscous here:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jean-dubuffet/

Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a Taseksut in Berber, a كِسْكَاس kiskas in Arabic or a couscoussier in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big, the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archaeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussier was made from organic materials that could not survive extended exposure to the elements. I suggest a simple dish of couscous and vegetables seasoned with cumin and garlic to taste. My preference is to cook the couscous separately from the vegetables in a steamer, but you can be traditional and boil them with spices in the base of your steamer. I usually sauté the spices gently over medium heat in a heavy skillet in a little extra virgin olive oil, then add the vegetables to cook through. Nowadays Algerians use whatever vegetables are to hand, including zucchini and tomatoes, but before the European exploration of the Americas vegetables would have been more limited – carrots, peas, broccoli, etc.

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The couscous that is sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. It is typically prepared by adding 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock to each measure of couscous then leaving covered tightly for about 5 minutes. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, or dried pasta, beans, or grains.

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In Algeria and Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal, or just by itself, as a delicacy called “seffa”. The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert is served with milk perfumed with orange flower water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.

Jul 312015
 

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Today is the birthday (1901) of Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet, French painter and sculptor best known for founding the art movement Art Brut, and for the collection of works—Collection de l’art brut—that this movement spawned. Dubuffet enjoyed a prolific art career, both in France and in the United States.

Dubuffet was born in Le Havre to a family of wholesale wine merchants. He moved to Paris in 1918 to study painting at the Académie Julian, becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger. Six months later, upon finding academic training to be distasteful, he left the Académie to study independently. During this time, Dubuffet developed many other interests, including music, poetry, and the study of ancient and modern languages. Dubuffet also traveled to Italy and Brazil, and upon returning to Le Havre in 1925, he married for the first time and went on to start a small wine business in Paris. He took up painting again in 1934 when he made a large series of portraits in which he emphasized the vogues in art history. But again he stopped, developing his wine business at Bercy during the German Occupation of France.

In 1942, Dubuffet decided to devote himself again to art. He often chose subjects for his works from everyday life, such as people sitting in the Paris Métro or walking in the country. Dubuffet painted with strong, unbroken colors, recalling the palette of Fauvism, as well as the Brucke painters, with their juxtaposing and discordant patches of color. Many of his works featured an individual or individuals placed in a very cramped space, which had a distinct psychological impact on viewers. His first solo show came in October 1944, at the Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris. This marked Dubuffet’s third attempt to become an established artist.

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In 1945, Dubuffet attended and was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Jean Fautrier’s paintings in which he saw art which he believed expressed directly and purely the depth of a person. Emulating Fautrier, Dubuffet started to use thick oil paint mixed with materials such as mud, sand, coal dust, pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, gravel, cement, and tar. This allowed him to abandon the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush; instead, Dubuffet created a paste into which he could add physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. The impasto technique of mixing and applying paint was best manifested in Dubuffet’s series ‘Hautes Pâtes’ or Thick Impastos, which he exhibited at his second major exhibition, entitled Microbolus Macadam & Cie/Hautes Pâtes in 1946 at the Galérie René Drouin. His use of crude materials and style incited a significant backlash from critics, who accused Dubuffet of ‘anarchy’ and ‘scraping the dustbin’. He did receive some positive feedback as well—Clement Greenberg took notice of Dubuffet’s work and wrote that ‘from a distance, Dubuffet seems the most original painter to have come out of the School of Paris since Miro…’ Greenberg went on to say that ‘Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade.’

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After 1946, Dubuffet started a series of portraits, with his friends Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Jean Paulhan and Pierre Matisse serving as ‘models’. He painted these portraits in the same thick materials, and in a manner deliberately anti-psychological and anti-personal. A few years later he approached the surrealist group in 1948, then the College of Pataphysique in 1954. He was friendly with the French playwright, actor and theater director Antonin Artaud, he admired and supported the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline and was strongly connected with the artistic circle around the surrealist André Masson. In 1944 he started an important relationship with the resistance-fighter and French writer, publisher, Jean Paulhan who was also fighting against ‘intellectual terrorism’, as he called it.

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Dubuffet achieved very rapid success in the U.S. art market, largely due to his inclusion in the Pierre Matisse exhibition in 1946. Matisse was an influential dealer of contemporary European Art in the U.S. and was known for strongly supporting the School of Paris artists. Dubuffet’s work was placed among the likes of Picasso, Braque, and Rouault at the gallery exhibit, and he was only one of two young artists to be honored in this manner. A Newsweek article dubbed Dubuffet as the ‘darling of Parisian avant-garde circles,’ and Greenberg wrote positively about Dubuffet’s three canvasses in a review of the exhibit. His reception in the U.S. was very closely linked to and dependent upon the New York art world’s desire to create its own avant-garde.

Between 1945 and 1947, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria—a French colony at the time—in order to find further artistic inspiration. In this sense, Dubuffet is very similar to other artists such as Delacroix, Matisse, and Fromentin. However, the art that Dubuffet produced while he was there was very specific insofar as it recalled Post-War French ethnography in light of decolonization. In June 1948, Dubuffet, along with Jean Paulhan, Andre Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche, officially established La Compagnie de l’art brut in Paris. This association was dedicated to the discovery, documentation and exhibition of art brut. Dubuffet later amassed his own collection of this art, including artists such as Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli. This collection is now housed at the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne.

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Influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term art brut ( “raw art”) for art produced by non-professionals working outside conventional aesthetic norms, such as art by psychiatric patients, prisoners, and children. Dubuffet felt that the simple life of the everyday human being contained more art and poetry than did academic art, or great painting. He found the latter to be isolating, mundane, and pretentious, and wrote in his Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre that his aim was

. . . not the mere gratification of a handful of specialists, but rather the man in the street when he comes home from work….it is the man in the street whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.

To that end, Dubuffet began to search for an art form in which everyone could participate and by which everyone could be entertained. He sought to create an art as free from intellectual concerns as Art Brut, and as a result, his work often appears primitive and childlike. His form is often compared to wall scratchings and children’s art. Nonetheless, Dubuffet appeared to be quite erudite when it came to writing about his own work. According to prominent art critic Hilton Kramer, “There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naive visionary.”

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From 1962 he produced a series of works in which he limited himself to the colors red, white, black, and blue. Towards the end of the 1960s he turned increasingly to sculpture, producing works in polystyrene which he then painted with vinyl paint.

In late 1960–1961, Dubuffet began experimenting with music and sound and made several recordings with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA. The same period he started making sculpture, but in a very not-sculptural way. As his medium he preferred to use the ordinary materials as papier-mâché and for all the light medium polystyrene, in which he could model very fast and switch easily from one work to another, as sketches on paper. At the end of the 1960s he started to create his large sculpture-habitations, such as ‘Tour aux figures’, ‘Jardin d’Hiver’ and ‘Villa Falbala’ in which people can wander, stay, and contemplate. In 1969 ensued an acquaintance between him and the French Outsider Art artist Jacques Soisson.

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In 1978 Dubuffet collaborated with U.S. composer and musician Jasun Martz to create the record album artwork for Martz’s avant-garde symphony entitled The Pillory. The much written about drawing has been reproduced internationally in three different editions on tens-of-thousands of record albums and compact discs. A detail of the drawing is also featured on Martz’s second symphony (2005), The Pillory/The Battle, performed by The Intercontinental Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choir.

Dubuffet died on May 12, 1985, in Paris.

It seems to me that making couscous is a fitting tribute to Dubuffet since it is an Algerian staple, the country from which he drew inspiration, and since it is so popular nowadays in France. Couscous is a traditional Berber dish of semolina (granules of durum wheat) which is cooked by steaming. It is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous was voted the third-favorite dish of French people overall in 2011 in a study by TNS Sofres for the magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand, and the first in the east of France.

Traditionally semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. This process is labor-intensive. For the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world in instant form.

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To make instant couscous you simply bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the couscous, bring back to the boil, then turn off the heat, cover tightly and let sit for 15 minutes (instructions are always on the package). Uncover, fluff, and serve. Simplicity itself. It is used, like rice, to accompany all manner of meat or vegetable dishes.

Lamb shanks are an all time favorite of mine and are popular in Algeria accompanied by couscous. They were very hard to find in Argentina because butchers sold whole lamb legs with shanks attached, and are equally hard to find here in Yunnan because lamb is rare. Nonetheless here is my heuristic recipe for Algerian lamb shanks from memory.

Algerian Lamb Shanks

Heat olive oil in a deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown one lamb shank per person on all sides. Set the browned shanks aside. Adding more oil if necessary, add chopped onions and minced garlic and sauté until translucent. Add minced fresh ginger, powdered cardamom, saffron threads, chili flakes, powdered cloves, caraway, fennel seeds, powdered cinnamon, and salt to taste. I usually just add these spices in arbitrary quantities, adjusting them later to my taste as the shanks simmer. Add a handful each of blanched, sliced almonds and raisins (or saltanas), canned tomatoes and the zest and juice of one orange per 4 shanks. Return the shanks to the pan and cover with beef stock. Bring to a simmer and cook covered for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling from the bone. Let the liquid reduce but not dry out. Add diced carrot and fennel bulb and cook for about 20 minutes more until they are fully cooked but not mushy. Serve over couscous.

Aug 282013
 

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Today is the saint’s day of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Christian theologian whose writings were influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria) in the Roman province of Africa. He was a prolific writer, his most widely read works being City of God and Confessions.  He was a great scholar, but I am ambivalent about some of  his teachings inasmuch as he gave us the concepts of “original sin” and “just war.” I’m not thrilled about his neo-Platonism either. On the other hand he is the patron saint of brewers which makes up for a lot. When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, and in the face of growing Christian sects that challenged Catholic orthodoxy, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.

Augustine was born in 354 in the municipium of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in Roman Africa. It is believed that his mother was a Berber. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus (now M’Daourouch), a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as Roman religious beliefs and practices. While at home in 369 and 370, he read Cicero’s dialogue Hortensius (now lost), which he described as leaving a lasting impression on him and sparking his interest in philosophy.

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At age 17, through the generosity of fellow citizen, Romanianus, Augustine went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits with women and urged the inexperienced boys, like Augustine, to seek out experiences or to make up stories about experiences in order to gain acceptance and avoid ridicule. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine had two lengthy affairs, one of which produced a son. He was also briefly betrothed to an eleven year old girl of high birth, a union which his mother arranged, but broke it off when he began moving towards a more spiritual life.

In the summer of 386, Augustine reached a turning point in his life as he began absorbing Christian teaching.  At the time he held a very prestigious position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. He was becoming influenced more and more by Christian friends  and especially by Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  One day while in contemplation in a garden he heard a childlike voice saying “tolle, lege” (“pick [it] up, read”). He took this to mean that he should pick up the Bible and read it, which he did. He opened randomly to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and read (13:13-14):

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

He writes in Confessions that this was a transformative moment.  He became a catechumen and was baptized by Ambrose.

Augustine and his mother

Augustine and his mother

After a period in Rome, during which his mother died, Augustine returned to Thagaste in Africa, settled his property, established his own monastic community, and began to live a contemplative life as a lay “servant of God.” In 390 his son, who was apparently a gifted student, died. Grief made Augustine restless, and he visited Hippo to see about setting up another monastery there. Catholic Christians were in the minority in north Africa at that time, and were persecuted by other Christian sects, such as the Donatists and Manichaeans. Bishop Valerius asked him to accept ordination to help the embattled minority, and from then on he remained in Hippo until his death, preaching and writing against heresy. The Donatists and Manichaeans were both dualists, believing that the material world was essentially evil, and that only the spiritual realm was good – hence separating themselves from the world.  Augustine argued that the world was what it was, good and bad, and it was up to the church to live in the world and make it better.

In 395 Augustine was ordained coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Hippo. In less than two years he would be made bishop. During his episcopate, he drove the Donatists and other heretical Christian rivals out of Hippo. He led the community with a paternal hand, adjudicating disputes, intervening for prisoners to save them from torture and execution, advocating for the poor, buying freedom for badly treated slaves, and charging religious women with the care of abandoned and orphaned children. He preached abundantly and wrote extensively. By 410 Augustine had written thirty-three books.

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The last two decades of Augustine’s life were plagued with violence as Visigoths and Vandals began their conquest of the Roman Empire.  In 430 Vandals invaded the provinces around Hippo, burning and pillaging as they went. Communities fled to Hippo which was fortified.  Vandals laid siege to the city for several months. Augustine died of a fever, perhaps exacerbated by hunger caused by the siege, on 28 August 430.  The Vandals eventually burned most of the city but left the cathedral and Augustine’s library intact.  In it were all of his books, letters, notes, and sermons.  A priceless legacy. Some parts of the old city survive today.

Ancient Hippo today

Ancient Hippo today

It is impossible for me to summarize Augustine’s thought and his influence down to the present day.  Let me just pick up on a couple of themes, and you can search wider if you care to.  It’s a lot easier to write these posts when I don’t know what I am talking about! For me his greatest teaching has to be that the notion of a “literal” reading of the Bible is not a simple matter. He argued that you could read the Bible in many ways. You could adhere to a strict reading of the words (what is now called “literalism”), or you could see the stories as allegories (without worrying about the surface truth), and therefore see in them a spiritual truth.  Augustine spoke of the latter as just as literal as the former.  So, for example, in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” Augustine took the view that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in seven calendar days as a surface reading of Genesis would require. He argued that the seven-day structure of creation presented in Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way; it has a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning.

His teachings on the sacraments of baptism and communion are very complicated, but one essential element I want to point out is that Augustine believed they were not mere mechanical rituals that worked because you performed them.   Their efficacy lay in the spiritual dimension you bring to them.  In this, as well as his Biblical teachings, he sounds an awful lot like a modern Protestant, and is often cited by Protestant theologians.

Hippo is now the city of Annaba in Algeria.  Algerian cooking is a variant of cuisines found throughout north Africa.  I have chosen a recipe for a chicken soup, shorba baidha, finished with an egg and lemon mixture that resembles soups found throughout the Mediterranean, but with an Algerian savor.

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Shorba Baidha

Ingredients:

6 chicken thighs
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
7 oz (200 g) cooked chick peas (garbanzos)
10 ½ cups (2 ½ li) chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
½  lemon
1 large egg yolk, beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsps basmati rice
salt  and pepper to taste

Instructions:

Sauté the onion in the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat until translucent.

Add the chicken and the cinnamon stick and sauté until the chicken is golden all over.

Add the stock plus salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes on medium heat.

Strip the chicken from the bone, tear it into bite-sized pieces, and return it to the pot.

Add the chickpeas and rice to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes covered, or until the rice is cooked.

Add more stock if the soup is too thick.

Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the egg yolk in a small jug or cup.  Add several tablespoons of the soup to the egg/lemon mixture and whisk well.  With the soup on a rolling boil add the egg mix in a steady stream whisking constantly. Cook for one more minute and serve immediately garnished with parsley.

Serves 6