Jan 052018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Tío Juan’s Wassail Chicken

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

Nov 292017
 

 

On this date in 1877 Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated what he called at the time a “talking machine.” As with most of Edison’s inventions he was not the first in the field, nor were his ideas completely original. But he did produce a workable prototype, based, in part, on ideas that others had been working on, and he had both the engineering and marketing skills to bring what became known as the phonograph to a wide public, hence he is generally credited with being the sole inventor of what evolved into the gramophone and record player. To set the record straight (no pun intended), here’s a small video demonstrating precursors of Edison’s device.

The great breakthrough that Edison made was that his device could both record and play back recorded sounds. The sounds on the video have been recreated via modern technology. Several inventors devised machines to record sound prior to Thomas Edison’s phonograph, Edison being the first to invent a device that could both record and reproduce sound. The phonograph’s predecessors include Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph, and Charles Cros’s paleophone. Recordings made with the phonautograph were intended to be visual representations of the sound and could not be reproduced as sound until 2008. Cros’s paleophone was intended to both record and reproduce sound but had not been developed beyond a basic concept at the time of Edison’s successful demonstration of the phonograph in 1877.

Direct tracings of the vibrations of sound-producing objects such as tuning forks had been made by English physician Thomas Young in 1807, but the first known device for recording airborne speech, music and other sounds is the phonautograph, patented in 1857 by French typesetter and inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. In this device, sound waves travelling through the air vibrated a parchment diaphragm which was linked to a bristle, and the bristle traced a line through a thin coating of soot on a sheet of paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder. The sound vibrations were recorded as undulations or other irregularities in the traced line. Scott’s phonautograph was intended purely for the visual study and analysis of the tracings. Reproduction of the recorded sound was not possible with the original phonautograph. In 2008, phonautograph recordings made by Scott were played back as sound by US audio historians, who used optical scanning and computer processing to convert the traced waveforms into digital audio files. These recordings, made circa 1860, include fragments of two French songs and a recitation in Italian.

Charles Cros

Charles Cros, a French poet and amateur scientist, is the first person known to have made the conceptual leap from recording sound as a traced line to the theoretical possibility of reproducing the sound from the tracing and then to devising a definite method for accomplishing the reproduction. On April 30, 1877, he deposited a sealed envelope containing a summary of his ideas with the French Academy of Sciences, a standard procedure used by scientists and inventors to establish priority of conception of unpublished ideas in the event of any later dispute.

Cros proposed the use of photoengraving, a process already in use to make metal printing plates from line drawings, to convert an insubstantial phonautograph tracing in soot into a groove or ridge on a metal disc or cylinder. This metal surface would then be given the same motion and speed as the original recording surface. A stylus linked to a diaphragm would be made to ride in the groove or on the ridge so that the stylus would be moved back and forth in accordance with the recorded vibrations. It would transmit these vibrations to the connected diaphragm, and the diaphragm would transmit them to the air, reproducing the original sound.

An account of his invention was published on October 10, 1877, by which date Cros had devised a more direct procedure: the recording stylus could scribe its tracing through a thin coating of acid-resistant material on a metal surface and the surface could then be etched in an acid bath, producing the desired groove without the complication of an intermediate photographic procedure. The author of this article called the device a “phonographe”, but Cros himself favored the word “paleophone”, sometimes rendered in French as “voix du passé” (voice of the past), which accorded well with his vision of his invention’s potential for creating an archive of sound recordings that would be available to listeners in the distant future.

Cros was a poet of meager means, not in a position to pay a machinist to build a working model, and largely content to bequeath his ideas to the public domain free of charge and let others reduce them to practice, but after the earliest reports of Edison’s invention crossed the Atlantic he had his sealed letter of April 30 opened and read at the December 3, 1877 meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, claiming due scientific credit for priority of conception.

Throughout the first decade (1890–1900) of commercial production of the earliest crude disc records, the direct acid-etch method first invented by Cros was used to create the metal master discs, but Cros was not around to claim any credit or to witness the humble beginnings of the eventually rich phonographic library he had foreseen. He had died in 1888 at the age of 45.

Edison conceived the principle of recording and reproducing sound between May and July 1877 as a byproduct of his efforts to “play back” recorded telegraph messages and to automate speech sounds for transmission by telephone. He announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device for recording and replaying sound, on November 21, 1877 (early reports appear in Scientific American and several newspapers in the beginning of November, and an even earlier announcement of Edison working on a ‘talking-machine’ can be found in the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 9), and he demonstrated the device for the first time on November 29 (it was patented on February 19, 1878 as US Patent 200,521).

In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: “Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?” The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.

Edison presented his own account of inventing the phonograph:

I was experimenting, on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day. The platen had a spiral groove on its surface, like the disk. Over this was placed a circular disk of paper; an electromagnet with the embossing point connected to an arm traveled over the disk; and any signals given through the magnets were embossed on the disk of paper. If this disc was removed from the machine and put on a similar machine provided with a contact point, the embossed record would cause the signals to be repeated into another wire. The ordinary speed of telegraphic signals is thirty-five to forty words a minute; but with this machine several hundred words were possible.

From my experiments on the telephone I knew of how to work a pawl connected to the diaphragm; and this engaging a ratchet-wheel served to give continuous rotation to a pulley. This pulley was connected by a cord to a little paper toy representing a man sawing wood. Hence, if one shouted: ‘ Mary had a little lamb,’ etc., the paper man would start sawing wood. I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, I could cause such records to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice.

Instead of using a disk I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm. A sketch was made, and the piece-work price, $18, was marked on the sketch. I was in the habit of marking the price I would pay on each sketch. If the workman lost, I would pay his regular wages; if he made more than the wages, he kept it. The workman who got the sketch was John Kruesi. I didn’t have much faith that it would work, expecting that I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea. Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb’, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of.

The music critic Herman Klein attended an early demonstration (1881–2) of a similar machine. On the early phonograph’s reproductive capabilities he writes

It sounded to my ear like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall; but the effect was rather pleasant, save for a peculiar nasal quality wholly due to the mechanism, though there was little of the scratching which later was a prominent feature of the flat disc. Recording for that primitive machine was a comparatively simple matter. I had to keep my mouth about six inches away from the horn and remember not to make my voice too loud if I wanted anything approximating to a clear reproduction; that was all. When it was played over to me and I heard my own voice for the first time, one or two friends who were present said that it sounded rather like mine; others declared that they would never have recognised it. I daresay both opinions were correct.

Edison’s early phonographs recorded on to a thin sheet of metal, normally tinfoil, which was temporarily wrapped around a helically grooved cylinder mounted on a correspondingly threaded rod supported by plain and threaded bearings. While the cylinder was rotated and slowly progressed along its axis, the airborne sound vibrated a diaphragm connected to a stylus that indented the foil into the cylinder’s groove, thereby recording the vibrations as “hill-and-dale” variations of the depth of the indentation.

Playback was accomplished by exactly repeating the recording procedure, the only difference being that the recorded foil now served to vibrate the stylus, which transmitted its vibrations to the diaphragm and onward into the air as audible sound. Although Edison’s very first experimental tinfoil phonograph used separate and somewhat different recording and playback assemblies, in subsequent machines a single diaphragm and stylus served both purposes. One peculiar consequence was that it was possible to overdub additional sound onto a recording being played back. The recording was heavily worn by each playing, and it was nearly impossible to accurately remount a recorded foil after it had been removed from the cylinder. In this form, the only practical use that could be found for the phonograph was as a startling novelty for private amusement at home or public exhibitions for profit.

Edison’s early patents show that he was aware that sound could be recorded as a spiral on a disc, but Edison concentrated his efforts on cylinders, since the groove on the outside of a rotating cylinder provides a constant velocity to the stylus in the groove, which Edison considered more “scientifically correct”. Edison’s patent specified that the audio recording be embossed, and it was not until 1886 that vertically modulated engraved recording using wax-coated cylinders was patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. They named their version the Graphophone.

The use of a flat recording surface instead of a cylindrical one was an obvious alternative which Charles Cros initially favored and which Edison and others actually tested in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The oldest surviving example is a copper electrotype of a recording cut into a wax disc in 1881. The commercialization of sound recording technology was initially aimed at use for business correspondence and transcription into writing, in which the cylindrical form offered certain advantages, the storage of large numbers of records seemed unlikely, and the ease of producing multiple copies was not a consideration.

In 1887, Emile Berliner patented a variant of the phonograph which he named the Gramophone. Berliner’s approach was essentially the same one proposed, but never implemented, by Charles Cros in 1877. The diaphragm was linked to the recording stylus in a way that caused it to vibrate laterally (side to side) as it traced a spiral onto a zinc disc very thinly coated with a compound of beeswax. The zinc disc was then immersed in a bath of chromic acid; this etched a groove into the disc where the stylus had removed the coating, after which the recording could be played. With some later improvements the flat discs of Berliner could be produced in large quantities at much lower cost than the cylinders of Edison’s system.

When Edison moved to New York in 1869 he had no money, but managed to trade some tea leaves for a breakfast of baked apple dumplings, and he states that they remained his favorite food. This recipe comes Gold Medal Flour Cook Book of 1904. Previously it had been printed on Gold Medal flour bags, so is likely to be close to what Edison ate.

Baked Apple Dumplings

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold butter or margarine
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
6 baking apples, about 3 inches in diameter (such as Braeburn, Granny Smith or Rome)
3 tablespoons raisins
3 tablespoons chopped nuts
2 ½ cups packed brown sugar
1 ⅓ cups water

Steps

1. Heat the oven to 425°F. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Cut in the butter, using a pastry blender or fork, until particles are the size of small peas. Sprinkle with the cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well with fork until all flour is moistened. Gather the dough together, and press it into a 6×4-inch rectangle.

2. Lightly sprinkle flour over a cutting board or countertop. Cut off ⅓ of the dough with a knife; set aside. On the floured surface, place ⅔ of the dough. Flatten dough evenly, using hands or a rolling pin, into a 14-inch square; cut into 4 squares. Flatten the remaining ⅓ of the dough into a 14×7-inch rectangle; cut into 2 squares. You will have 6 squares of dough.

3. Remove the stem end from each apple. Place the apple on a cutting board. Using a paring knife, cut around the core by pushing the knife straight down to the bottom of the apple and pull up. Move the knife and make the next cut. Repeat until you have cut around the apple core. Push the core from the apple. (Or remove the cores with an apple corer.) Peel the apples with a paring knife.

4. Place 1 apple on the center of each square of dough. In a small bowl, mix the raisins and nuts. Fill the center of each apple with raisin mixture. Moisten the corners of each square with small amount of water; bring 2 opposite corners of dough up over apple and press corners together. Fold in sides of remaining corners; bring corners up over apple and press together. Place dumplings in a 13×9-inch (3-quart) glass baking dish.

5. In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the brown sugar and 1 ⅓ cups water to boiling over high heat, stirring frequently. Carefully pour the sugar syrup around the dumplings.

6. Bake about 40 minutes, spooning syrup over apples 2 or 3 times, until crust is browned and apples are tender when pierced with a fork.

7. Serve warm or cooled with syrup from pan.

Makes 4

 

 

Mar 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков) a Russian composer who was a member of the group of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful: a late 19th century group intent on promoting a distinctively Russian style of music. I have covered two other members here:

Borodin: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/alexander-borodin/

Mussorgsky: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/modest-mussorgsky/

Rimsky-Korsakov was known among The Five as a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions—Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade—are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of folk subjects with magical components. Rimsky-Korsakov believed in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian traditional lore married to exotic harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements and only reluctantly used traditional Western compositional methods. Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques more after he became professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five.

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea probably influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this ability to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.

Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire, and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as a teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore often considered to be the main architect of what the art music world considers the Russian style of composition.  These days I have two problems with Rimsky-Korsakov’s activities in this sphere. On the one hand, his orchestrations of works by other members of The Five, notably Mussorgsky’s, is often considered as meddling these days, and it is sometimes difficult to find the original that Mussorgsky intended under Rimsky-Korsakov’s “improvements.”  On the other hand, nationalism in its many forms is toxic to my soul, not least Russian nationalism (although I hate it wherever it lives). I can certainly appreciate the desire on the part of young Russian composers to break away from the mold of what they saw as German or Italian styles of music, but the nationalism of The Five (as noted below) can get a bit too heavy handed for my tastes at times.

Rimsky-Korsakov is sometimes seen as a transitional figure between the generally self-taught members of The Five and the professionally trained composers who became the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style greatly influenced two generations of Russian composers, but also non-Russian composers such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.

For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which is very frequently played on its own as a bravura solo. Isolating the piece from its operatic context and from its original scoring does it an injustice in my humble opinion. Let’s start with a fairly standard solo version for trumpet, preceded by a worthy pep talk from the soloist.

This is familiar stuff, whatever the solo instrument may be.  But Bumblebee is a small, one might say insignificant, part of a large-scale operatic treatment by Rimsky-Korsakov of a Russian folk tale from Pushkin. Pushkin’s original is known in English as The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan.  The première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre.

Pushkin’s narrative, adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov is as follows:

The tale concerns three sisters whom the tsar spies on. He chooses the youngest as his bride (tsaritsa) because when he overhears them discussing what they would do if the tsar were to marry them, the eldest says she would make a sumptuous feast, the middle sister says she would weave fine cloth, and the youngest says she would bear him a son. When he chooses to marry the youngest, he orders the other two sisters to be his royal cook and weaver. They become jealous of their younger sister, so when the tsar goes off to war and the tsaritsa gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidón, the elder sisters arrange to have the tsaritsa and the child sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea takes pity on them and casts them on the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. He ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite bird.

The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, so the swan turns him into a mosquito to help him. In this guise, he visits Tsar Saltan’s court, where he stings his aunt in the eye and escapes. Back in his realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. But he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him again, this time into a fly. In this guise Prince Gvidon visits Saltan’s court again and he stings his older aunt in the eye. The third time, the Prince is transformed into a bumblebee and stings the nose of his grandmother.

In the end, The Prince expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which point the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the tsar, who is overjoyed to find his newly married son and daughter-in-law.

In the opera, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is a musical interlude in Act 3 between scenes 1 and 2 representing the prince’s initial transformation into a bumblebee and his flight to the ship that will carry him to his homeland. In the opera, the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the “Flight” but her vocal line is melodically unrelated and so can easily be omitted. Because of this feature and the fact that this section conclusively ends scene 1, it can stand alone.  Here is a link to the full opera. I find the heavy-handed nationalism a little hard to stomach, but it is useful to hear “Flight” in its musical context.  You’ll find it at 1.27.00.  If you rewind to 1.25.00 you’ll hear the lead in, and be able to note the leitmotifs that appear in various places throughout the opera, and which are incorporated in “Flight.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsqZU9y1FMk

For my money “Flight” sounds much richer and more fully developed as an orchestral piece than as a solo act. Here it is extracted  from the opera:

What do you think?

For Borodin and Mussorgsky I gave full blooded Russian recipes from St Petersburg, so there is no need to alter course with Rimsky-Korsakov.  I have chosen pirozhki (Пирожки) for today – a savory or sweet  bread-dough encased pastry that can be baked or fried.  In keeping with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame as a master of orchestration I am going to give you a choice of three fillings and instructions for baking or frying. In truth they can be stuffed with all manner of things: meat, cabbage, fish, rice, fruit, etc. Take your pick. You can make a decidedly Russian lunch by serving pirozhki with borshcht.

Pirozhki

Ingredients

Dough

1 (⅜ oz) package dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup oil or butter
4 ½ cups flour

Filling #1 (Braised Cabbage)

1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 tsp paprika
1 small head cabbage, shredded
10 white mushrooms, diced
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

Filling #2 (Beef and Onion)

1 lb ground beef
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp flour
½ cup stock
3 tbsp sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
salt and black pepper

Filling #3 (fruit)

2 ¾ cups peeled, cored and finely diced apples
¼ cup sugar
lemon juice

oil for frying (if necessary)
beaten egg (if necessary)

Instructions

Dough

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it stand 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the flour and add the milk, egg, oil and yeast. Combine to make a soft dough. Knead for about 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size (one half hour to one hour).

Filling #1

Sauté the carrots, onion, mushrooms and bell pepper in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the cabbage, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Set aside to cool.

Filling #2

Brown the beef in a dry skillet over high heat, then add the onions and continue to cook the mixture for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Combine the flour with the stock and pour over the meat.  Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.

Add the sour cream, boiled eggs, dill, and salt and pepper to taste and stir thoroughly to mix.  Set aside to cool.

Filling #3

Toss the apples and sugar in a mixing bowl with some lemon juice to prevent browning. Set aside.

To Bake

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, flatten it with your fingers or roll it out in a circle to ⅛” thickness. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and bring the opposite edges of circle together. Pinch the seam securely. (The traditional shape is a plump center with tapering ends). Repeat.

Let the pirozhkis rise on a lightly greased baking tray, seam side down, for 30 minutes.

Brush with beaten egg and bake until golden brown (approx 20 minutes). Serve warm.

To Fry

Heat your deep fryer to 360°F.

Roll out dough circles as for baked pirozhki and fill them in the same way, making sure the seam is tight and no filling is in the seam. Deep fry them in batches immediately until they are golden (that is, do not let them rise).  Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

Feb 202017
 

On this date in 1913 the first survey peg for the laying out of the new Australian capital, Canberra, was driven in ceremonially by Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley. The founding and development of Canberra is a curious story in its right, but today I am more interested in who King O’Malley was: a larger than life character.

O’Malley was not quite certain about his own birthday. He claimed it was either 3 or 4 July 1854, but he chose to celebrate it on 4 July. O’Malley claimed all his life (in public at least) to have been born at the Stanford Farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, which would have made him a British subject, but it is more likely that he was born at his parents’ farm in Valley Falls, Kansas, United States. Late in his life, in a letter to the widow of the former Labor MP James Catts, O’Malley wrote “I am an American.” According to O’Malley, his parents were William and Mary O’Malley. He kept it dark because as a US citizen he would not have been eligible for elected office.

O’Malley was educated at a primary school in New York City, and then worked in his uncle’s bank and as an insurance and real estate salesman, traveling widely around the United States. While in Texas O’Malley founded a church, taking the title of “First Bishop of the Waterlily Rock Bound Church, the Red Skin Temple of the Cayuse Nation” in order to take advantage of a government land grant then being offered to churches. In 1881 O’Malley married Rosy Wilmot, who died from tuberculosis shortly before she was due to give birth in 1886. O’Malley found he had contracted the disease from her and in 1888, having been given six months to live, he sailed for Queensland, Australia.  As it happens he lived to be close to 100.

Landing at Port Alma, O’Malley reputedly took up residence in a cave at Emu Park, where he befriended an aborigine, Coowonga, who cared for him until he recovered. Once healthy, O’Malley decided to walk the 2,100 km from Emu Park to Adelaide arriving in 1893. In South Australia he again worked as an itinerant insurance salesman, also preaching evangelical Christianity and temperance.

In 1895 he settled in Gawler, South Australia, and at the 1896 election he was elected as a member for Encounter Bay in the South Australian House of Assembly as a radical democrat, opposed to the wealthy landowners who then dominated colonial politics. Calling himself a follower of Christian Socialism, his most popular platform among conservatives was to rid hotels of barmaids “hired for their physical attributes rather than their prowess in drawing ale”. Although O’Malley was unsuccessful at the time, laws were passed in 1909 to require registration of barmaids, who had to be a member of the owner’s family.

O’Malley’s narrow win in 1896 has been credited to his popularity among religious leaders and conservatives for his extreme puritan views, but it seems his popularity with women voters was a bigger factor. Women were much taken by his appearance and O’Malley’s “oratorial buffoonery” was the popular topic of discussion throughout South Australia. He called hotels “drunkeries”, alcohol was “stagger juice”, opponents were “diabolical rapscallions” and he referred to himself as the “bald headed Eagle from the Rocky Mountains”.

O’Malley was defeated at the 1899 election, and the following year he moved to Tasmania. He drew immediate attention for his public preaching and speaking and was elected in the 1901 federal election (the inaugural national parliamentary election) as a member for Tasmania. In 1903 he was elected as the member for Darwin (Tasmania, not Northern Territory). Although there was no Labour Party in Tasmania at this time, he joined the Labour Party Caucus when the Parliament assembled in Melbourne.

Middle row, third from left.

Gavin Souter describes O’Malley at this time:

O’Malley’s monstrously overgrown persona seemed to be inhabited simultaneously by a spruiker from Barnum’s three-ring circus, a hell-and-tarnation revivalist, and a four-flushing Yankee Congressman. He was a moderately big man, auburn-haired with watchful grey eyes and a red-brown beard, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, blue-grey suit with huge lapels and a low-cut vest, loose cravat with a diamond collar stud, and in the centre of his cream silk shirt-front a fiery opal.

O’Malley was one of the more prominent and colorful members of the Parliament, but his radical ideas were not widely accepted, and many regarded him as a charlatan. He became a prominent advocate of a national bank as a means of providing cheap credit for farmers and small businessmen. He was not a member of Chris Watson’s first Labour ministry in 1904, or of Andrew Fisher’s first ministry in 1908. But in April 1910 the Caucus elected him to the ministry of Fisher’s second government. In the same year he married again, to Amy Garrod.

O’Malley became Minister for Home Affairs, and played a prominent role in selecting the site of the future capital of Australia, Canberra. He declared US architect Walter Burley Griffin winner of the town planning competition. Consequently on 20 February 1913 O’Malley had the honor of driving in the first peg marking the start of the development of the city. He was also present at the ceremony for the naming of Canberra on 12 March 1913.

As a teetotaller he was responsible for the highly unpopular ban on alcohol in the Australian Capital Territory. He could also claim credit for beginning the building of the Trans-Australian Railway from Port Augusta to Perth. O’Malley also agitated for the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, a state-owned savings and investment bank although, contrary to his later claims, he was not the bank’s sole creator. He later wrote that he had led a “torpedo squad” in Caucus to force a reluctant Cabinet to establish the bank, but historians do not accept this. Prime Minister Fisher was the bank’s principal architect. Partly to allay fears of “funny money” aroused by O’Malley’s populist rhetoric, Fisher ensured that the bank would be run on firmly “sound money” principles, and the bank as established did not provide the easy credit for farmers that the radicals desired.

O’Malley’s other legacy was the spelling of “Labor” in the Australian Labor Party’s title in the American style. He was a spelling reform enthusiast and persuaded the party that “Labor” was a more “modern” spelling than “Labour”. Although the American spelling has still not become established in Australia, the Labor Party has preserved the spelling.

Labor was defeated at the 1913 federal election, and when it returned to office at the 1914 federal election, O’Malley was not re-elected to the Cabinet. In October 1915, however, Fisher retired and O’Malley returned to office in the first ministry of Billy Hughes, again as Minister for Home Affairs. But a year later the government split over the determination of Hughes to introduce conscription to fill the ranks of Australia’s armed forces in World War I. Although he was not an active anti-conscriptionist, O’Malley was pressured by Hughes to resign his portfolio but he refused to do so. He finally lost office on 13 November 1916 when Hughes and twenty-four other Labor members walked out of the Caucus and formed the National Labor ministry.

Hughes called the 1917 federal election, and O’Malley was heavily defeated in his northern Tasmanian seat of Darwin by former Labor colleague Charles Howroyd, a conscriptionist who was running for Hughes’ Nationalist Party. O’Malley suffered a swing of almost 15 percent, and was one of many Labor figures swept out in that year’s massive Nationalist landslide. He stood unsuccessfully in the seat of Denison in 1919, and in Bass in 1922, but he was never again returned to elected office. Although he was only 63 at the time of his defeat, he retired to Melbourne and devoted his time to building up his own legend, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth Bank, and to polemical journalism on a variety of pet causes. He lived to be 99, outliving his nemesis Hughes by 14 months. At the time of his death he was the last surviving member of the first Australian Parliament and last surviving MP who served when Edmund Barton was Prime Minister. Furthermore, he was the last surviving member of Andrew Fisher’s second Cabinet.

O’Malley’s importance in developing the national capital is remembered in Canberra with the suburb of O’Malley being named after him. A pub in Canberra, King O’Malley’s Irish Pub in Civic, is also named after him – a tongue-in-cheek reference to his sponsorship of the unpopular alcohol ban in the Australian Capital Territory during Canberra’s early years.

I’ve almost run out of Australian cooking ideas because there’s not much to it, even though bush tucker and native plants have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Instead I’d like to focus on the Granny Smith apple, a true son of Australian soil – unlike O’Malley. The ‘Granny Smith’ cultivar originated in Eastwood, New South Wales, Australia (now a suburb of Sydney) in 1868. Its discoverer, Maria Ann Smith, had emigrated to the district from Beckley, East Sussex in 1839 with her husband Thomas. They bought a small orchard in the area in 1855-1856 and began cultivating fruit, for which the area was a well known center in colonial Australia. Smith had numerous children and was a prominent figure in the district, earning the nickname “Granny” Smith in her advanced years.

The first description of the origin of the ‘Granny Smith’ apple was not published until 1924. In that year, Farmer and Settler published the account of a local historian who had interviewed two men who had known Smith. One of those interviewed recalled that in 1868 he (then twelve years old) and his father had been invited to Smith’s farm to inspect a chance seedling that had sprung near a creek. Smith had dumped there among the ferns the remains of French crab-apples that had been grown in Tasmania. Another story recounted that Smith had been testing French crab-apples for cooking, and throwing the apple cores out her window as she worked, found that the new cultivar sprang up underneath her kitchen windowsill. Whatever the case, Smith took it upon herself to propagate the new cultivar on her property, finding the apples good for cooking and for general consumption. They looked like cooking apples but they were not tart but sweet and crisp to eat raw as well as being good for cooking. She took a stall at Sydney’s George Street market, where the apples stored well and were immediately popular.

Smith died only a couple of years after her discovery (in 1870), but her work had been noticed by other local planters. Edward Gallard was one such planter, who extensively planted ‘Granny Smith’ trees on his property and bought the Smith farm when Thomas died in 1876. Gallard was successful in marketing the apple locally, but it did not receive widespread attention until 1890. In that year, it was exhibited as “Smith’s Seedling” at the Castle Hill Agricultural and Horticultural Show, and the following year it won the prize for cooking apples under the name “Granny Smith’s Seedling”. The apple was successful and the following year many were exhibiting ‘Granny Smith’ apples at horticultural shows. Thenceforth the Granny Smith was promoted and became a worldwide standard. Granny Smiths are easily obtainable here in Mantua where I use them for apple crumble and apple pie. You can search my recipes here or use your own favorite apple recipe.

Jan 112017
 

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Since 2010 this date has been designated as Tag des deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) in Germany, a campaign started by the National Association of Fruit and Vegetables Producers as a part of a more general campaign: “Germany – My Garden” to raise awareness of farm products that are locally grown. The main objective of German Apples Day is to draw public attention to apples and make them more popular across the country.  January might seem like an odd month to celebrate apples given that in Germany at this time of year apple trees are bare. But the good thing about apples is that they keep well over the winter months if they are stored at cool temperatures.

The German apple growing area was about 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) in 2012, a little less than in  2007, although the number of apple trees increased by about 6% to about 72 million. Roughly 87% of the apples are sold fresh for eating and cooking. The remaining 13% are processed. The most popular varieties Elstar, Jonagold, Janagored, and Braeburn.  All told, though, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties of apples grown in Germany, but some of the heirloom varieties are becoming quite rare.  The great proliferation of varieties stems from historical needs. Some were used for wine and cider, some for cooking, some for long storage and so forth, and different varieties were especially well suited for specific locations.  The apple is still by far the most popular fruit in Germany but there is concern that popularity is waning and the diversity of choices is decreasing.

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German Apples Day is celebrated by giving out hundreds of thousands of apples in major cities in Germany. Every year locally grown apples are distributed to schools and businesses, and even to passers-by in the streets for free.

Today is a good day to celebrate apples by using them in cooking. In past posts I have given recipes for apple pancakes, apple pie, apple strudel, apple crumble etc. Today it seems fitting to give a recipe for German apple cake, a very moist cake loaded with apples.

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German Apple Cake

Ingredients

2 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups white sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
4 cups  peeled, cored and diced apples

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Grease and flour one 9″x 13″ cake pan.

In a mixing bowl beat the oil and eggs with an electric mixer until creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat well.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and ground cinnamon together in a bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the egg mixture and mix until combined. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples by hand using a wooden spoon.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes or until cake a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool a little on a wire rack, then turn it out on to a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

Jan 072017
 

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In his compendious Book Of Days (1869) – from which title this blog gets its name – Robert Chambers asserts that 7th January, the day following Epiphany, was called St Distaff’s Day from time immemorial and was a day of merriment for women much as Plough Monday was for men. We have to take all of Chamber’s pronouncements with a large pinch of salt because his writings are not particularly scrupulous or scholarly. He gathered his material from hither and yon, and it’s a grave mistake (repeated endlessly by half wits) to assume that what he reports concerning one particular time and place was in any sense universal. Such a bad habit is the bane of English social history. Nonetheless, he quotes Herrick’s poem on St Distaff’s Day, and this poem leads me to believe that the day’s activities had some currency for a time.  This comes from the anthology, Hesperides, published in 1647:

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Saint Distaffs day, or the morrow after
Twelfth day.

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

Given that the poem is set in imperatives it’s difficult to assess whether Herrick is recommending these activities, or describing a known state of affairs.  The general suggestion seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul.  I’d say that ploughmen burning women’s flax and their clothes, and women drenching men with water for revenge – all as a jolly jape, or as a routine sport – is unlikely. But the command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia http://www.bookofdaystales.com/plough-monday/ .

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Chambers has nothing to add of substance about observing the day but does note:

This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women who had not anything else to do, or during the intervals of other and more serious work—a cheering resource to the solitary female in all ranks of life, an enlivenment to every fireside scene. To spin—how essentially was the idea at one time associated with the female sex! even to that extent, that in England spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman—the spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children—and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself: thus, the French proverb was:

‘The crown of France never falls to the distaff.’

Now, through the change wrought by the organised industries of Manchester and Glasgow, the princess of the fairy tale who was destined to die by a spindle piercing her hand, might wander from the Land’s End to John O’ Groat’s House, and never encounter an article of the kind, unless in an archaeological museum.

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A distaff is a rod that holds the material to be spun, either by spinning wheel or spindle, and was in use from ancient Egyptian times until the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The word “distaff” is still sometimes used for the maternal line or side of a family, given that using a distaff was largely (but not exclusively) women’s work.  Thus playfulness on St Distaff’s Day would seem to signify disrupting women’s work, whereas Plough Monday disrupted men’s activities. I find zero evidence for the belief that this was a Medieval custom or even that it was a particularly widespread one. Herrick’s poem seems to be the sole source and it is 17th century, and of dubious reliability. Nonetheless, you’ll read endless nonsense from spinners and weavers guilds about how the day was commonly observed throughout Medieval Europe, usually in promotional literature advertising their events in early January.

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For a recipe I’ve chosen fried apple pies from the 1653 cookbook A True Gentlewomans Delight

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

It’s fairly straightforward.  They are really a version of empanaditas. You have to be careful to fry them slowly so that the apples cook fully in the process and so that the butter does not burn.  Here is my version in pictures.

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Oct 042016
 

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The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).

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The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.

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Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).

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Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

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I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.

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Keftedes de Prasa

Ingredients

2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
salt
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying

Instructions

Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.