Apr 172019
 

On this date in 1853 president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento of Argentina asked Michel Aimé Pouget, a French soil expert, to bring new vines to Argentina to invigorate the nation’s wine industry. The day is now celebrated as Día Mundial del Malbec or Worldwide Malbec Day, with official events in over 60 countries. Pouget experimented with the adaptation of French varietals to Argentina’s diverse soils and ecozones and determined that Malbec grew well, especially in the up lands of Mendoza by the Andes. A decade later, France underwent a Phylloxera Plague that affected the Rhône region devastating ages old vineyards. Meanwhile, stocks in the Americas were resistant, and Argentine Malbec vines flourished. Malbec became the dominant varietal wine in Argentina, whereas in France Malbec grapes are used in blends to make Bordeaux wines.

Until the 1990s, Argentina was more interested in quantity rather than quality, and “Argentine wine” was synonymous with “cheap rotgut.” But, in the 1990s, the Argentine government teamed up with French vintners to elevate the quality of indigenous varietals. Argentina’s most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza’s high altitude wine regions of Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These districts are located in the foothills of the Andes mountains between 800 m and 1500 m elevation (2,800 to 5,000 feet). Argentine vintner Nicolás Catena Zapata has been widely credited for elevating the status of Argentine Malbec and the Mendoza region through serious experimentation into the effects of high altitude.

The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives, having smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters. This suggests that the cuttings brought over by Pouget and later French immigrants were a unique clone that may have gone extinct in France due to frost and the phylloxera epidemic. Argentine Malbec wine is characterized by its deep color and intense fruity flavors with a velvety texture. While it doesn’t have the tannic structure of a French Malbec, being more plush in texture, Argentine Malbecs have shown aging potential similar to their French counterparts. Increasingly Argentine Malbecs take home top prizes in European competitions.

In 2011, Wines of Argentina, responsible for promoting Argentine wines around the world, established April 17th as Malbec World Day. Lis Clément, their Head of Marketing and Communications at the time, founded this day because she was convinced this celebration would help position Malbec as one of Argentina’s wine gems. Nowadays, more than 60 cities around the world (coordinated by the Foreign Affairs Office of Argentina) host events around Malbec, Argentine food and lifestyle. Each year, a theme is created to link Malbec and Argentine culture. This framework allows every celebration to be creative and adapt to each country’s culture.  Although Malbec originated in France it is fair to say that Argentina is its new home.

When I lived in Argentina, any night out with friends involved a bottle (or two or three) of Malbec. In fact, in Buenos Aires “wine” and “Malbec” are virtual synonyms. Empanadas were a common accompaniment. I have mentioned Argentine empanadas before, and given recipes, but this time I will give you a version from Mendoza – Malbec country. They are a little spicier than other empanadas and contain boiled eggs (and sometimes abundant onions).

Empanadas Mendocinas

Ingredients

Dough

3 cups flour
1 egg yolk
½ cup lard, chopped in small pieces
¾ cup to 1 cup warm milk
½ tsp salt

Beef filling

1 lb ground beef
3 cups diced white onions
½ cup lard
2 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tsp chili powder
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano
½ tbsp ground cumin
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
¼ cup sliced green olives
salt and pepper to taste

1 egg, white and yolk separated and lightly whisked

Instructions

Empanada dough

Sift the flour and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Add the lard and pulse until you have a mix that resembles coarse sand. Add the egg yolk and a small amount of milk. Pulse and continue adding milk until small dough clumps start to form. Turn the dough out on to a board and knead into a ball. Divide in two, wrap in foil and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Beef filling

Combine the ground beef, paprika, red pepper, cumin, salt and pepper in a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together.  Melt the lard in a large frying pan, add the onions and salt, and cook until the onions are soft. Add the meat mixture to the onions and cook on medium heat until the meat is browned, stirring frequently. Let the meat mixture or picadillo cool down, and then mix in the chopped green onions and chopped oregano.

Assembly

On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough into thin sheets and cut out round disc shapes for empanadas using a small plate as a guide. Add a spoonful of the meat mixture on the center of each empanada disc, add a slice of egg and some sliced olive.  Brush the edges of the empanada discs with the egg whites. Fold the empanada discs and seal the edges gently with your fingers, twist and fold the edges of the empanadas with your fingers, as a final step use a fork to press down and finish sealing the empanadas. (Getting this part right takes practice – and watching professionals). Lightly brush the top of the empanadas with the egg yolk and let them rest in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes or until ready to bake.

Pre-heat the oven to 400°F/200°C. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until golden on top. Serve warm.

Jun 202018
 

The Spanish challenged will have to use the TRANSLATE app in the right-hand menu today. Won’t help with the video but you should get the drift.

Hoy es el Día de la Bandera en Argentina. Esa fecha es feriado nacional y día festivo dedicado a la bandera Argentina y a la conmemoración de su creador, Manuel Belgrano, fallecido en ese día de 1820. La fecha fue decretada por ley 12.361 del 8 de junio de 1938, con aprobación del Congreso, por el entonces presidente de la Nación Argentina, Roberto M. Ortiz.

A partir del año 2011, por decreto nacional, dicho feriado es inamovible. La bandera fue creada el 27 de febrero de 1812, durante la gesta por la Independencia de las provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata. La principal sede de las conmemoraciones del Día de la Bandera es el Monumento a la Bandera, en la ciudad de Rosario (provincia de Santa Fe), lugar en el que la bandera fue izada por primera vez en dos baterías de artillería, ubicadas en orillas opuestas del río Paraná. La celebración consiste de una reunión pública a la que asisten el presidente y miembros de las fuerzas armadas, veteranos de la guerra de las Malvinas, las fuerzas policiales, y una serie de organizaciones civiles.

Después de 14 años, el 20 de junio de 1957, se inaugura oficialmente el Monumento Nacional a la Bandera, en actos oficiales presididos por el dictador Pedro Eugenio Aramburu.

Una serie de actividades previas y posteriores completaron los festejos, convocando a la ciudadanía que siguió todos los pasos de esta ceremonia inaugural. Un gran desfile militar, seguidos de discursos fueron el centro de esta inauguración. Desde hace algunos años, se incluye el desfile de la bandera más larga del mundo, que es confeccionada de manera comunitaria por la población de Rosario. En 1812, las tropas a las órdenes de Manolou Zancheso comenzaron a utilizar una escarapela bicolor azul-celeste y blanco (colores adoptados por las cintas y escarapelas distintivas utilizadas por los «chisperos» o patriotas adherentes a la Revolución del 25 de mayo de 1810). El mismo Belgrano expresó en un informe oficial que no usaba el rojo «para evitar confusiones», ya que el ejército realista (es decir, los españoles y sus adictos) usaban ese color. El 13 de febrero de 1812 Belgrano propuso al Gobierno la adopción de una escarapela nacional para los soldados y 10 días después la adoptó luego de que el 18 de febrero de 1812 la Junta declarara abolida la escarapela roja y reconoció la blanca y celeste.

Siendo preciso enarbolar bandera y no teniéndola, la mandé hacer blanca y celeste conforme a los colores de la escarapela nacional.

Los colores de la escarapela, que luego fueron los de la bandera, tienen otro antecedente: eran los que identificaban a los miembros de la Sociedad Patriótica (grupo político y literario de civiles y militares identificados con las ideas de Mariano Moreno). Como sus miembros habían sido desplazados de la Junta en 1811, pasaron a la oposición. Y el Primer Triunvirato eligió el celeste y blanco para la escarapela con una disposición distinta de esa sociedad. Esta última los disponía de este modo: celeste, blanco, celeste. La primera escarapela, se supone, era blanca, celeste y blanca.

Cerca de Macha (en Bolivia), se encontraron dos banderas que se supone eran las que llevó Belgrano hasta el Alto Perú durante su campaña militar. Una tiene la franja central celeste, y la otra, blanca. El Ejército del Norte juró obediencia a la Asamblea del Año XIII con una bandera blanca y celeste. Y esta enseña recién se enarboló en el mástil del Fuerte en 1815. Hasta entonces, allí, flameaba la bandera española. El Congreso de Tucumán, en 1816, adoptó la bandera celeste, blanca y celeste como símbolo nacional que identificaba a la nueva nación. La presencia del sol en el centro de la bandera la adoptó el Congreso, reunido en Buenos Aires, en 1818. Este sol es el mismo que aparecía en la primera moneda nacional acuñada por la Asamblea del Año XIII y luce 32 rayos flamígeros. Hasta 1985 la bandera con el sol era la «bandera mayor» de la Nación, y solo podían lucirla los edificios públicos y el Ejército. Los particulares solo podían usar la bandera sin el sol en el centro. Luego de 1985 el parlamento promulgó una ley por el cual todas las banderas tienen que tener el sol de mayo, mediante esta ley cualquier particular o empresa privada puede acceder a una bandera con el sol, dejando de ser así solo de los organismos estatales.

Alfajor santafesino es el postre de Rosario, perfecto para celebrar el día de la bandera. Que rico!!!

 

 

 

 

Mar 242018
 

Today is the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice (Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia), a public holiday in Argentina, commemorating the victims of the Dirty War. It is held on 24th March because that is the anniversary of the coup d’état of 1976 that brought the National Reorganization Process to power.

President Juan Perón died on July 1, 1974. He was succeeded by his wife María Estela Martínez de Perón, affectionately called “Isabelita.” Despite her claim as the country’s rightful ruler, María rapidly lost political influence and power. A group of military officials, organized by Perón himself to aide María, took control in an effort to revitalize Argentina’s deteriorating political and social climate. This shift in governance paved the way for the ensuing coup. The involvement of the US and France in financing and supporting the coup was kept secret for decades, but has now come to light. The blood of tens of thousands of desaparecidos is on the hands of the CIA. I have not the slightest doubt that if I had lived in Buenos Aires at the time, I would have been counted among them. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-day-disappeared/ 

The coup in Argentina was part of a much broader strategic political policy of the CIA in Latin America known as Operation Condor, whose purpose was to encourage takeovers by far-right regimes and to bolster them while in power. The torture and murder of intellectuals and dissidents was explicitly condoned, and many of the assassinations of opponents to the governments were ordered directly by the CIA. Operation Condor was planned in 1968, and was officially implemented in 1975.

Condor’s key members were the governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Most of the members of the Juntas have now been convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide. A series of declassified documents from the US State Department reveal the leading role of the CIA. The largest secret operation on a continental scale, a component of Operation Condor, was Operation Central America, deployed from 1977 to 1984. The CIA was restricted from covert operations in Latin America under Jimmy Carter, president from 1977 to 1981. According to Duane Clarridge, head of the CIA at the time, the Argentine military regime, which was little more than a puppet of the CIA, was funded to do the “dirty” work that the CIA was not allowed to conduct by Carter. The Argentine dictatorship carried out CIA operations in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, including an Argentine military landing in Central America as an outside legionary force.

The military coup in Argentina in 1976 was coordinated and funded by the CIA as a key stage in having a compliant military regime in the region. Shortly before 01:00 am on March 24th, president Martínez de Perón was detained in Buenos Aires. At 03:10 all television and radio stations were interrupted. Regular transmissions were cut and replaced by a military march, after which the first communiqué was broadcast:

People are advised that as of today, the country is under the operational control of the Joint Chiefs General of the Armed Forces. We recommend to all inhabitants strict compliance with the provisions and directives emanating from the military, security or police authorities, and to be extremely careful to avoid individual or group actions and attitudes that may require drastic intervention from the operating personnel.

A state of siege and martial law were implemented, as military patrolling spread to every major city. The morning was seemingly uneventful, but as the day progressed, the detentions multiplied. Hundreds of workers, unionists, students, and political activists were abducted from their homes, their workplaces, or in the streets. State terrorism in Argentina continued until the democratic government of Raúl Alfonsín was elected to office in 1983. It organized the National Commission CONADEP to investigate crimes committed during the Dirty War and heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses and began to develop cases against offenders. It organized a tribunal to conduct prosecution of offenders and in 1985 the Trial of the Juntas was held. The top military officers of all the juntas were among the nearly 300 people prosecuted and the top men were all convicted and sentenced for their crimes. At the time, Argentina was the only Latin American example of the government conducting such trials.

Threatening another coup, the military opposed subjecting more of its personnel to such trials. It forced through passage by the legislature of Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law) in 1986, which ended prosecutions for crimes under the dictatorship. Fearing military uprisings, Argentina’s first two presidents after the Dirty War sentenced only the top two ex commanders and, even then, very leniently. The Ley de Punto Final provided amnesty to Dirty War acts, arguing that torturers were only doing their “jobs” (the defense of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg). President Carlos Menem praised the military in their “fight against subversion.”

In 2003, Congress repealed the Pardon Laws and in 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional. In 2006, under Nestor Kirchner, the government re-opened investigations and began prosecutions again of the crimes against humanity committed by military and security officers. Its 2006 sentencing of Miguel Etchecolatz (Director of Intelligence for the Buenos Aires Provincial Police) for conviction on numerous charges of kidnapping, torture and murder. Argentine courts condemned the 1970s Junta members for crimes against humanity and genocide of political dissidents. Some of these trials are still in progress, and many Argentinos are still seeking information concerning the fate of their family members – in particular, Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Association of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) whose children were among those “disappeared” by the Junta.

The commemoration of this date was sanctioned as Law 25633 by the Argentine National Congress on 1st August 2002 and promulgated by the Executive Branch on 22nd August of the same year. However, it was not implemented as a public national holiday until 2006. The 30th and 40th anniversaries of the coup were marked by massive demonstrations on this date. Argentina is still waiting for an apology from the US for its part in the Dirty War. Probably be a while.

I have given recipes for pretty much all the well-known dishes of Argentina so it’s time to branch out to some lesser known regional recipes. Chipás are a favorite of mine from northeastern Argentina. They were originally a simple form of bread made from cassava flour by the indigenous Guaraní, but after Spanish colonization cheese was added to the dough to make them as they are now. There are numerous varieties. Standard chipás are shaped into small balls, but they can also be baked into doughnut shapes or larger buns that may be called chipa’í or chipacitos. These are sold in small bags by street sellers in both cities and small towns. Other common variants include the chipá caburé or chipá mbocá (cooked around a stick) and the chipa so’ó, filled with ground meat. There are other varieties of chipa with different ingredients; chipa manduvi (made with a mix of corn flour and peanut), chipá avatí and chipa rora (made of the skin of the seed of corn after being strained, like a whole-wheat bread). Flavorings, such as anise seeds can also be added. The cassava flour is essential and you may have to order it online. Mozzarella is a common cheese used as well as other locally produced cheeses.

Chipás

Ingredients

1 lb cassava flour
½ cup butter
4 eggs, beaten
½ lb melting cheese , grated
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 420˚F/200˚C.

Mix the butter and the eggs in a stand mixer until they are well combined. Add the grated cheese and mix.

Dissolve the salt in the milk. Add to the mixture. Then, add the cassava flour slowly and continue mixing until a dough forms.

Knead the dough on a floured board and then place it in a bowl, cover and chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Pinch off pieces about the size of a golf ball, roll them with your palms into regular balls and place them, about 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until lightly golden.

Sep 292017
 

Today is the birthday (1899) of László József Bíró (or Ladislao José Biro – born  László József Schweiger) an Argentine inventor, born in Hungary, who patented the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen. The native form of his personal name was Bíró László József; it is common in many European countries (and even more so in Asia), to put the family name first.

Bíró was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. After leaving school, he began work as a journalist in Hungary. It was while working as a journalist that he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, because it was too viscous.

He presented the first production of the ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Working with his brother György, a chemist, he developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, and as it turned it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit it on the paper. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.

During World War II, Bíró was forced to flee the Nazis. In 1943 the brothers moved to Argentina. On 10 June they filed another patent, issued in the US as 2,390,636 Writing Instrument, and formed Biro Pens of Argentina (in Argentina the ballpoint pen is known as birome). This new design was licensed for production in the United Kingdom for supply to Royal Air Force aircrew, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.

In 1945 Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for the pen, which soon became the main product of his Bic company, which has sold more than 100 billion ballpoint pens worldwide. In November of that same year, promoter Milton Reynolds introduced a gravity-fed pen to the U.S. market. The Reynolds Pen was a sensation for a few years, until its reputation for leaking, and competition from established pen manufacturers overtook it. Bíró’s patent was based on capillary action, which caused ink to be drawn out of the pen as it was deposited on the paper. Because the Reynolds workaround depended on gravity, it did not infringe but required thinner ink and a larger barrel.

Bíró died in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985. Argentina’s Inventors’ Day is celebrated on Bíró’s birthday, that is, today. On 29 September 2016, the 117th anniversary of his birth, Google commemorated Bíró with a Google Doodle for “his relentless, forward-thinking spirit.”

A ballpoint pen is widely referred to as a “biro” in many countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia and Italy. Biro is a registered trademark, but in some countries it has become genericized – like Kleenex and Hoover. Biros were the spawn of Satan according to my teachers in Australia and England. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case in England, but in Australia it was because we were taught cursive copperplate which requires thin lines for up-strokes and thicker ones for down-strokes. I had cursive writing lessons for 5 years in primary school using a dip pen and inkwell. I was not even allowed to use a fountain pen. Why there was so much emphasis on correct penmanship is beyond me. Needless to say, I was useless at it and my handwriting nowadays is a scrawl that is more or less illegible to anyone other than myself. And . . . I use a biro.

Although Bíró was nominally Argentino, and he is celebrated there as a (sort of) national hero, he was Hungarian, and did his most productive work in Europe.  So, a great Hungarian recipe is in order. But . . . as a sop to Argentina I’ve chosen a pancake (crepe) recipe because they are immensely popular in Buenos Aires. This one can be made to look like biro writing by using a squeeze bottle to add the chocolate sauce.

Gundel Palacsinta

Ingredients:

For the crepe batter (10-12 pieces):

2 eggs
240 gm/2 cups flour
300 ml milk
100 ml club soda water
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
salt
40 gm sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the filling:

40 gm raisins
200 ml cream
4 tbsp dark rum
100 gm sugar
250 gm walnuts
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp powdered cinnamon

For the chocolate sauce:

 

100 gm dark chocolate
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
30 gm butter
250 ml milk
80 gm sugar
30 gm cocoa powder
3 tbsp dark rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
butter (for frying)

Instructions

For the pancakes:

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the milk slowly, whisking vigorously to avoid lumps, until they are well combined and smooth. Add the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, club soda, and vanilla plus a pinch of salt and continue to beat until well combined. When the batter is finished, mix in the vegetable oil.

Refrigerate the batter for at least two hours before frying.

For the filling:

Soak the raisins in lukewarm water.

Grind half of the walnuts, and chop the other half reasonably fine.

Bring the cream and sugar to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high head, then add the ground and finely chopped walnuts, rum, cinnamon, orange zest and raisins while stirring continuously. Over low heat cook for 2-3 minutes. If it’s too thick, you may add more cream. Turn off the heat and let the filling cool.

Fry the crepes in a crepe pan. I use butter to grease the pan initially, but after one or two it is no longer necessary. Get the crepe pan well heated, add the butter, swirl it around, and then add about a ladle of batter. Swirl it around until it covers the base of the pan, let the top dry, then flip and cook the other side. There is no need to cook them to a golden brown because you are going to cook them again.

When all the crepes are ready, spread them with the filling. Some people roll them up, others fold them in quarters (as in the photo). They are easier to re-fry if quartered.

Set aside.

For the chocolate sauce:

Melt the dark chocolate combined with the milk in a double boiler, or in a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Remove from the heat and quickly combine the chocolate mixture with the egg yolks using a heavy whisk. Add the sugar, cocoa powder, butter and rum, and stir until well combined. Put back over simmering water and warm the sauce for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but keep warm.

Melt 60 grams of butter in a non-stick pan and fry all the filled crepes, in small batches, on both sides until they are golden brown.

Place one or two crepes on a heated plate and pour a little hot chocolate sauce on the top.

Jun 062017
 

On this date in 913 the Byzantine emperor Alexander III died of exhaustion after a game of tzykanion, the Greek name for polo, allegedly fulfilling his brother’s prophecy that he would reign for 13 months only. Seems like as good a reason as any to talk about the history of the game. Alexander, on the other hand, is scarcely worth a mention; historians variously describe him as drunk, cruel, lecherous, and malignant.

Polo originated in ancient Persia. Its creation is dated variously from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. Like football, there were probably various ball games played on horseback throughout the east dating into antiquity. The first properly authenticated reference states that the Persian Emperor Shapur II learnt to play polo when he was 7 years old in 316 CE. The game was picked up by the neighboring Byzantine Empire not long after. A tzykanisterion (stadium for playing tzykanion) was built by emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) inside the Great Palace of Constantinople.

Qutubuddin Aibak, a Turkic slave from Central Asia who later became the Sultan of Delhi in Northern India, ruled as a Sultan for only four years, from 1206 to 1210, but died accidentally in 1210 while he was playing a game of polo. His horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle.

After the Muslim conquests of Egypt and the Levant, creating the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties, their elites favored polo above all other sports in those regions. Notable sultans such as Saladin (1137 – 1193) and Baybars (1223 – 1277), are known to have played polo and encouraged it in their court. Polo sticks was one of the four suits in the deck of the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.

Around the 15th and 16th centuries polo migrated outward from the Persian empire to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent, especially in the northern areas of present-day Pakistan (notably Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and Baltistan), and China, where it was popular in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, where is was played by women as well as men. Many Tang dynasty tomb figures of female players survive. Polo was considered valuable for training cavalry, which accounts for its migration from Constantinople all the way to Japan by the late Middle Ages.  The name polo is said to have been derived from the Balti (Tibetic) word “pulu”, meaning ball.

The modern game of polo evolved from the game as it was played in Manipur, India, in the 19th century, where the game was known variously as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. The origins of the game in Manipur are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (Mukna Kangjei). I don’t want to know what wrestling hockey is. Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo, and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports may indicate an origin earlier than the historical records of Manipur. Later, according to Chaitharol-Kumbaba, a Royal Chronicle of the Manipur king Kangba who ruled Manipur much earlier than Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33 CE) introduced Sagol Kangjei (Kangjei on horseback). However, it was the first Mughal emperor, Babur (1483 – 1530), who popularized the sport in India, and regular playing of this game commenced in 1605 during the reign of King Khagemba under newly framed rules.

In Manipur, polo was, and is, traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm). There are no goal posts, and a player scores simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players strike the ball with the long side of the mallet head, not the end. Players are not permitted to carry the ball, although blocking the ball with any part of the body except the open hand is permitted. The sticks are made of cane, and the balls are made from the roots of bamboo. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.

In Manipur, the game was originally played by anyone who owned a pony, including commoners. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort called Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, “Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally “Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.

The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State. The history of this polo ground is contained in the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba (c. 33 CE). Lieutenant (later Major General) Joseph Ford Sherer visited Maripur and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. In 1862 the oldest polo club still in existence, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The game’s governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.

This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The early British game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and only a few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. In consequence teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.

Meanwhile, British settlers in the Argentine pampas started practicing polo during their free time. Among them, David Shennan is credited with having organized the first formal polo game in the country in 1875, at Estancia El Negrete, located in the province of Buenos Aires. The sport spread quickly among the gauchos, who were skillful horsemen (and proud of it), and several clubs opened in the following years in Venado Tuerto, Cañada de Gómez, Quilmes, and Flores. In 1892 The River Plate Polo Association was founded and constituted the basis for the current Asociación Argentina de Polo. In the Olympic Games held in Paris in 1924 an Argentine team took the gold medal (the country’s first Olympic gold) and repeated in Berlin in 1936. Argentina is credited globally as the mecca of polo, mainly because Argentina is the country historically with the largest number of 10-goal handicap players in the world – ever. Polo players are rated on a scale from minus-2 to 10. Minus-2 indicates a novice player, while a player rated at 10 goals has the highest handicap possible. It is so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that there are fewer than two dozen in the world, and about two-thirds of all players handicapped are rated at two goals or less. All living ten-goal handicappers are Argentinos, with the exception of David Stirling who was born in Uruguay but plays in Argentina.

I am spoilt for choice when it comes to recipes.  Persian? Indian? British? Argentino? Horse meat stew would be a bit morbidly ironic, I guess, although horse meat is popular in northern Italy. I’ll go with Manipur, since that’s probably the immediate home of modern polo.  Eromba is a classic dish of the Meitei community of Manipur. It is simple yet delicious, largely because of the local vegetable ingredients. Eromba can be prepared with just about any seasonal vegetables that are considered compatible, hence can vary across regions and seasons. The word “eromba” comes from eeru taana lonba, meaning “mixing stirring watery” which when pronounced quickly becomes eromba or eronba.

You don’t stand the remotest chance of getting the right ingredients, so I’ll give you the basic idea only. Eromba is a vegetable soup which can also have a non-vegetarian option (containing fermented fish, not meat). The main seasoning is the local chile, so it is hot. Vegetables that are considered compatible to be used in any combination are:

Taro(Colocasia esculenta)
Foxnut seeds (Euryale ferox)
Stink bean (Parkia speciosa)
East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma angustifolia)
Potato
Fermented bamboo shoot
Okra
Water mimosa (Neptunia oleracea)
Broad bean

Seasoning can include ngari (fermented fish) for the non-vegetarian version, plus hot green or red ghost chile, green onion, Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata).

You know the drill by now. If you want the taste of Manipur, buy a ticket.  I’ll see you there.  I’m heading to Mandalay in a few weeks for a teaching job, which is right across the border from Manipur.

Jan 202017
 

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Today is National Cheese Lover’s Day in the United States.  There are numerous food “holidays” of this sort in the US and I don’t pay much attention to them.  But cheese is worth celebrating. I’ve already given numerous recipes and ideas for cheese in past posts, so today I’ll just ramble on a bit about the outer edges of cheese lore, plus some of my own likes and dislikes.

As a boy I was more or less indifferent to cheese. In both England and Australia cheeses were fairly undistinguished in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic “cheddar” was the main choice. Originally, cheddar was a distinctive cheese originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset. Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village contains a number of caves, which provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese. Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century. A pipe roll of King Henry II from 1170 records the purchase of 10,240 lb (4,640 kg) at a farthing per pound (totaling £10.13s.4d). Charles I (1600–1649) also bought cheese from the village.

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Central to the modernization and standardization of Cheddar cheese was the 19th-century Somerset dairyman Joseph Harding who introduced technical innovations, promoted dairy hygiene, and voluntarily disseminated his modernized cheese-making techniques. Harding introduced new equipment to the process of cheese-making, including his “revolving breaker” for curd cutting, saving a great deal of manual effort. Harding and his wife were responsible for the widespread distribution of cheddar including into Scotland and North America and his sons, Henry and William Harding, introduced Cheddar cheese production to Australia and New Zealand, respectively.

During the Second World War, and for nearly a decade after, most milk in Britain was used for the making of one single kind of cheese nicknamed “government Cheddar” as part of war economies and rationing. This resulted in almost wiping out all other cheese production in the country. Before the First World War there were more than 3,500 cheese producers in Britain; fewer than 100 remained after the Second World War. This was the situation when I was born and remained for several decades. I thought Cheddar was just an undistinguished semi-hard yellow cheese (akin to what is called “American cheese” in the US). Not at all. Classic Cheddar made in the traditional way tends to have a sharp, pungent flavor, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm but slightly crumbly.  Delicious – but hard to find.  It is now, once again, made in the region of Cheddar in the traditional manner. The name “cheddar” is not protected by the European Union because the process has been so widespread for so long, but the name “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has an EU protected designation of origin, and may only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, using milk sourced from those counties. It’s worth finding it.

In my youth, at best, you might find 4 or 5 English cheeses – Cheddar and Stilton were most common, but you might come across Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Wensleydale or White Lancashire if you were lucky, so that by my 20s (1970s) things were looking up.  My father told me of legendary cheeses he knew of before the war, such as Dorset Blue Vinny, but these had long disappeared. Nil desperandum. By the 1980s savvy entrepreneurs and small farmers were starting to revive old cheeses and to create new ones.  Now there are over 700 registered cheese names in England (and Blue Vinny is in there !!). When I visit Oxford I always head for the cheese shop in the covered market to see what is on sale.  They always have something tempting.

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Nowadays in the U.S., Wisconsin is the heartland of cheese manufacture, and after decades of emulating Britain in producing undistinguished cheeses it too is in the business of coming up with new ideas, although it mostly replicates European cheeses.  Fried curds is a local specialty though, which I like, and sampled when I first visited when my son auditioned for a music conservatory in Appleton. Wisconsin also has an annual cheese carving contest, which I won’t say is the best use of cheese, but does produce some interesting works.

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Soon after my brush with Wisconsin cheese I moved to Argentina where cheese production has a long, but mostly unknown, history of cheese manufacture.  I’d known about Argentine green Sardo for many years before I moved to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard grating cheese that originated in Italy but evolved in the dairy lands of Argentina, as did the most popular cheese, Cremosa.  Generally Argentine cheese, like U.S. cheese, replicates the cheeses of Europe, some of quite high quality.  Argentine Roquefort was a favorite of mine for several years.

Moving to China meant moving to a cheese wasteland.  The Chinese are mostly lactose intolerant, so dairy products in general are not widespread. Yoghurt is common enough, but cheese is not very popular.  Generally my Han Chinese students were disgusted by the very idea of cheese — “Why would you want to eat rotten milk?” This from people who will happily gobble down stinky fermented foodstuffs that have been buried for years. Fortunately I lived in Yunnan where the Bai people have been cheese makers for centuries. I can’t say that their Rubing or Rashan cheeses are all that interesting but they kept me going for a couple of years.

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Then I moved to northern Italy and drowned in cheese for several weeks. I live near Parma and Gorgonzola and have made obligatory pilgrimages.  I’m not a giant fan of Italian cheeses, but I always have some mozzarella di bufala and Parmegiano Reggiano on hand, and usually keep odds and ends such as Provolone and Gorgonzola knocking around for lunch sandwiches.

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My recommendation for Cheese Lover’s Day is to wander outside your normal tastes. See what you can find that is new and interesting to you. I doubt that you will stumble on yak cheese (chhurpi), but you never know.  The Nepalese are starting to export it.

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Happy cheese hunting.

Dec 192016
 

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Today is the birthday (1940) of Philip David “Phil” Ochs, a US protest singer (or, as he preferred, a topical singer) and songwriter who was known for his sharp wit, sardonic humor, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and distinctive voice. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and 1970s and released eight albums. Ochs is not remembered much these days and was never as important in the UK where I was living through most of the Vietnam War as he was in the US, where he was definitely a major voice for protest. People like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez captured (and continue to capture) more of the spotlight, but for my money Ochs was a more heartfelt voice of protest, and – on this day at least – he deserves not to be forgotten.

Ochs performed at many political events during the 1960s counterculture era, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, student events, and organized labor events over the course of his career, in addition to many concert appearances at such venues as New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Politically, Ochs described himself as a “left social democrat” who became an “early revolutionary” after the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to a police riot.

I’ll begin with, arguably, his best known protest song. That is, if it is remembered at all.

Where is this voice now?

Phil Ochs was born in El Paso, Texas, to Jacob “Jack” Ochs, a physician who was born in New York and Gertrude Phin Ochs, who was born in Scotland. Jack, drafted into the army, was sent overseas near the end of World War II, where he treated soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge. His war experiences affected his mental health and he received an honorable medical discharge in November 1945. Suffering from bipolar disorder and depression on his return home, Jack was unable to establish a successful medical practice and instead worked at a series of hospitals around the country. As a result, the Ochs family moved frequently: to Far Rockaway, New York, when Ochs was a teenager; then to Perrysburg in western New York, where he first studied music; and then to Columbus, Ohio.

As a teenager, Ochs was recognized as a talented clarinet player; in an evaluation, one music instructor wrote: “You have exceptional musical feeling and the ability to transfer it on your instrument is abundant.” His musical skills led him to play clarinet with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he rose to the status of principal soloist before he was 16. Although Ochs played classical music, he was interested in all manner of styles from Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. He also developed an interest in movie rebels, including Marlon Brando and James Dean.

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From 1956 to 1958, Ochs was a student at the Staunton Military Academy in rural Virginia, and when he graduated he returned to Columbus and enrolled at Ohio State University. After his first quarter he took a leave of absence and went to Florida. While in Miami, Ochs was jailed for two weeks for sleeping on a park bench, an incident he would later recall:

Somewhere during the course of those fifteen days I decided to become a writer. My primary thought was journalism … so in a flash I decided — I’ll be a writer and a major in journalism.

Ochs returned to Ohio State to study journalism and developed an interest in politics, with a particular interest in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. At Ohio State he met Jim Glover, a fellow student who was a devotee of what was called “folk” music. [Hint: Dylan, Baez, Seeger et al are not folk singers]. Glover introduced Ochs to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and The Weavers. Glover taught Ochs how to play guitar, and they debated politics. Ochs began writing newspaper articles, often on radical themes. When the student paper refused to publish some of his more radical articles, he started his own underground newspaper called The Word. His two main interests, politics and music, soon merged, and Ochs began writing topical political songs. Ochs and Glover formed a duet called “The Singing Socialists,” later renamed “The Sundowners,” but the duo broke up before their first professional performance and Glover went to New York City to become solo singer.

Ochs started performing professionally at a local club called Farragher’s Back Room and was the opening act for a number of musicians in the summer of 1961, including the Smothers Brothers. Ochs continued at Ohio State into his senior year, but dropped out in his last quarter without graduating. Instead he followed Glover to New York.

Ochs arrived in New York City in 1962 and began performing in numerous small nightclubs, eventually becoming an integral part of the Greenwich Village music scene. He emerged as an unpolished but passionate vocalist who wrote pointed songs about current events: war, civil rights, labor struggles and other topics.

Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist” saying he built his songs from stories he read in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963 he was sufficiently well known in folk circles to be invited to sing at the Newport Folk Festival, where he performed “Too Many Martyrs” (co-written with Bob Gibson), “Talking Birmingham Jam”, and “Power and the Glory”—his patriotic Guthrie-esque anthem that brought the audience to its feet. Ochs’s return appearance at Newport in 1964, when he performed “Draft Dodger Rag” and other songs, was widely praised. But he was not invited to appear in 1965.

Ochs recorded his first three albums for Elektra Records: All the News That’s Fit to Sing (1964), I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965), and Phil Ochs in Concert (1966). On these records, Ochs was accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. The albums contain many of Ochs’s topical songs, such as “Too Many Martyrs”, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, and “Draft Dodger Rag”; and some musical reinterpretation of older poetry, such as “The Highwayman” (poem by Alfred Noyes) and “The Bells” (poem by Edgar Allan Poe). Phil Ochs in Concert includes some more introspective songs, such as “Changes” and “When I’m Gone.”

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During the early period of his career, Ochs and Bob Dylan had a friendly rivalry. Dylan said of Ochs, “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better.” On another occasion, when Ochs criticized “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” Dylan threw him out of his limousine, saying, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.”

Ochs deeply admired President John F. Kennedy, even though he disagreed with the president on issues such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the growing involvement of the United States in the Vietnamese civil war. When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Ochs told his wife that he thought he was going to die that night.

In 1967, Ochs left Elektra for A&M Records and moved to Los Angeles. He recorded four studio albums for A&M: Pleasures of the Harbor (1967), Tape from California (1968), Rehearsals for Retirement (1969), and the ironically titled Greatest Hits (1970) (which actually consisted of all new material). For his A&M albums, Ochs moved away from simply produced solo acoustic guitar performances and experimented with ensemble and even orchestral instrumentation, “baroque-folk,” in the hopes of producing a pop-folk hybrid that would be a hit.

None of Ochs’s songs became hits, although “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” received a good deal of airplay. It reached #119 on Billboard’s national “Hot Prospect” listing before being pulled from some radio stations because of its lyrics, which sarcastically suggested that “smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer.” It was the closest Ochs ever came to the Top 40. Joan Baez, however, did have a Top Ten hit in the U.K. in August 1965, reaching #8 with her cover of Ochs’s song “There but for Fortune” which was also nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Folk Recording”. In the U.S. it peaked at #50 on the Billboard charts—a good showing, but not a hit.

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A lifelong movie fan, Ochs worked the narratives of justice and rebellion that he had seen in films into his music, describing some of his songs as “cinematic.” He was disappointed and bitter when his onetime hero John Wayne embraced the Vietnam War with what Ochs saw as the blind patriotism of Wayne’s 1968 film, The Green Berets:

Here we have John Wayne, who was a major artistic and psychological figure on the American scene, … who at one point used to make movies of soldiers who had a certain validity, … a certain sense of honor [about] what the soldier was doing…. Even if it was a cavalry movie doing a historically dishonorable thing to the Indians, even as there was a feeling of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to have some sense of duty…. Now today we have the same actor making his new war movie in a war so hopelessly corrupt that, without seeing the movie, I’m sure it is perfectly safe to say that it will be an almost technically-robot-view of soldiery, just by definition of how the whole country has deteriorated. And I think it would make a very interesting double feature to show a good old Wayne movie like, say, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with The Green Berets. Because that would make a very striking comment on what has happened to America in general.

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Ochs was involved in the creation of the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies, along with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Stew Albert, and Paul Krassner. At the same time, Ochs actively supported Eugene McCarthy’s more mainstream bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination for President, a position at odds with the more radical Yippie point of view. Still, Ochs helped plan the Yippies’ “Festival of Life” which was to take place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention along with demonstrations by other anti-war groups including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Despite warnings that there might be trouble, Ochs went to Chicago both as a guest of the McCarthy campaign and to participate in the demonstrations. He performed in Lincoln Park, Grant Park, and at the Chicago Coliseum, witnessed the violence perpetrated by the Chicago police against the protesters, and was himself arrested at one point.

The events of 1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon—left Ochs feeling disillusioned and depressed. The cover of his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement eerily portrays his tombstone.

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At the trial of the Chicago Seven in December 1969, Ochs testified for the defense. His testimony included his recitation of the lyrics to his song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”. On his way out of the courthouse, Ochs sang the song for the press corps; to Ochs’s amusement, his singing was broadcast that evening by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

In August 1971, Ochs went to Chile, where Marxist Salvador Allende had been democratically elected in the 1970 election. There he met Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara, an Allende supporter, and the two became friends. In October, Ochs left Chile to visit Argentina. Later that month, after singing at a political rally in Uruguay, he and his American traveling companion David Ifshin were arrested and detained overnight. When the two returned to Argentina, they were arrested as they got off the plane. After a brief stay in an Argentine prison, Ochs and Ifshin were sent to Bolivia via a commercial airliner where authorities were to detain them. Ifshin had previously been warned by Argentine leftist friends that when the authorities sent dissidents to Bolivia, they would disappear forever. When the airliner arrived in Bolivia, the American captain of the Braniff International Airways aircraft allowed Ochs and Ifshin to stay on the aircraft, and barred Bolivian authorities from entering. The aircraft then flew to Peru where the two disembarked and they were not detained. Fearful that Peruvian authorities might arrest him, Ochs returned to the United States a few days later.

Ochs was personally invited by John Lennon to sing at a large benefit at the University of Michigan in December 1971 on behalf of John Sinclair, an activist poet who had been arrested on minor drug charges and given a severe sentence. Ochs performed at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally along with Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, David Peel, Abbie Hoffman and many others. The rally culminated with Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were making their first public performance in the United States since the breakup of The Beatles.

Although the 1968 election had left him deeply disillusioned, Ochs continued to work for the election campaigns of anti-war candidates, such as George McGovern’s unsuccessful Presidential bid in 1972. In mid-1972, he went to Australia and New Zealand. He traveled to Africa in 1973, where he visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa. One night, Ochs was attacked and strangled by robbers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which damaged his vocal cords, causing a loss of the top three notes in his vocal range. The attack also exacerbated his growing mental problems, and he became increasingly paranoid. Ochs believed the attack may have been arranged by government agents—perhaps the CIA. Still, he continued his trip, even recording a single in Kenya, “Bwatue.”

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The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. Ochs planned a final “War Is Over” rally, which was held in New York’s Central Park on May 11. More than 100,000 people came to hear Ochs, joined by Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Pete Seeger and others. Ochs and Joan Baez sang a duet of “There but for Fortune” and he closed with his song “The War Is Over.”

Ochs became increasingly erratic. In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets. After several months, the Train persona faded and Ochs returned, but he continued drinking heavily and talking of suicide.

In January 1976, Ochs moved to Far Rockaway, New York, to live with his sister Sonny. He was lethargic; his only activities were watching television and playing cards with his nephews. Ochs saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed his bipolar disorder. He was prescribed medication, and he told his sister he was taking it. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in his sister’s home.

Years after his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of nearly 500 pages on Ochs. Much of the information in those files relates to his association with counterculture figures, protest organizers, musicians, and other people described by the FBI as “subversive.” The FBI was often sloppy in collecting information on Ochs: his name was frequently misspelled “Oakes” in their files, and they continued to consider him “potentially dangerous” after his death.

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Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D. New York), an outspoken anti-war activist herself who had appeared at the 1975 “War is Over” rally, entered this statement into the Congressional Record on April 29, 1976:

Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago, a young folksinger whose music personified the protest mood of the 1960s took his own life. Phil Ochs—whose original compositions were compelling moral statements against war in Southeast Asia—apparently felt that he had run out of words.

While his tragic action was undoubtedly motivated by terrible personal despair, his death is a political as well as an artistic tragedy. I believe it is indicative of the despair many of the activists of the 1960s are experiencing as they perceive a government which continues the distortion of national priorities that is exemplified in the military budget we have before us.

Phil Ochs’ poetic pronouncements were part of a larger effort to galvanize his generation into taking action to prevent war, racism, and poverty. He left us a legacy of important songs that continue to be relevant in 1976—even though “the war is over”.

Just one year ago—during this week of the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War—Phil recruited entertainers to appear at the “War is Over” celebration in Central Park, at which I spoke.

 It seems particularly appropriate that this week we should commemorate the contributions of this extraordinary young man.

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When I think of Ochs these days I think of the 60s. I think of his humanism, dedication, and faith along with his wit and sarcasm. In tribute I present this classic taste of the 1960s with my own hint of irony – Lipton Onion Soup dip. This was a perennial favorite at parties because it was easy to make and generally enjoyed – I guess. No need for more than the most rudimentary of recipes. You’ll need 1 envelope of Lipton® Recipe Secrets® Onion Soup Mix and 16 ounces of sour cream. Whip the two together and refrigerate for an hour or so. Serve with your favorite chips or raw vegetables.

Sep 082016
 

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September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world. About 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. According to statistics that are not especially reliable because what counts as “minimally literate” varies from culture to culture, one in five adults is not literate and two-thirds of them are women. The fact that twice as many women as men are illiterate is largely attributable to gender inequities in education in many regions of the world.

I have many thoughts about this subject, some of which will not be popular. At the outset I would like to challenge the unthinking notion that literacy is universally a GOOD THING. Obviously, in the modern developed world being literate has many more advantages than being illiterate. Even so, at what age and in what manner children should be taught to read is an ongoing debate. The great educator Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools, felt that 7 was soon enough for children to start learning how to read. He wanted them to experience purely oral culture first. That way they could enjoy the sheer pleasure of language – songs, poetry tales etc. – in oral form only. Therein lies the rub. Cultures that are literate gain something and lose something. Cultures that are non-literate (have no system of writing), are not inferior to ones that are literate; they are different.

There are things that non-literate cultures can do that literate ones cannot. It is believed, for example, that Homer (if he actually existed) was a bard who could not read or write. His epics were probably composed orally and subsequently written down by scribes.  Compare his epics with, let’s say, Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil is all right, but the Aeneid is scholarly and stuffy, whereas the Iliad and Odyssey are free flowing and imaginative. To compose an epic orally you have to have the kind of memory that is rare in literate people.

Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least four times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.

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The earliest forms of written communication probably originated in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was the product of expanding empires that required permanent records of laws and finances. Later, the notable accomplishments of the elite were recorded by scribes.  Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production. The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.

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Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and focused on the activities of power elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

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Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec cultures around 900-400 BCE. These cultures used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal activities and calendar systems.

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The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script.

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There are three basic systems of writing that vary in their difficulty in learning and usage — alphabetic, syllabic, and logographic. Alphabetic systems developed early in Mesopotamia, and are now extremely widespread because of their ease of use. A mere 26 letters give you the whole English language. The Roman alphabet used for English is not as phonetic as one might like. This is the fault of history not of the alphabet per se. English has never had an official academy to govern spelling so that it accurately mirrors standard pronunciation. Thus we end up with spellings like “was” “knight” “aisle” and “thorough” which give no clue as to proper pronunciation.  The spellings reflect archaic pronunciations and have never been corrected. Most European languages do better, but they need accents and other diacritics for assistance.

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At the other end of the scale is Chinese which is commonly known as a logographic writing system (although this is misleading). Chinese characters stand for morphemes, units of meaning that can be concepts or words. Learning to read them takes a very long time, as I can personally attest. After 2 years of study (1 in China), I know about 1,000 characters. Defining basic literacy in Chinese runs into political arguments. Are you basically literate if you know 2,000 or 5,000 characters? The upper number is probably the more accurate, but the government likes the lower one. By a personal estimate I’d say it takes about 10 years to be minimally competent in reading Chinese – and I mean minimally. Scholars in imperial China are known to have learned in excess of 50,000 characters. This leaves aside the even more vexing point that knowing how to pronounce the characters is no guarantee that you have a clue what the writer is saying. There is a system of writing Chinese, known as Pinyin, that uses the Roman alphabet, that comes in handy for phone texts or beginners. But no one in China wants Pinyin to replace characters. Too much meaning would be lost. Take the pronouns “he” and “she” for example. They are both pronounced /ta/ and written tā  in Pinyin. But the characters are different 他 (he) 她 (she) reflecting the unspoken, but implied, gender difference.

So . . . is learning how to read a universally GOOD THING? If you want to survive in the modern, developed world it is.  What it comes down to is whether the modern, developed world is a GOOD THING. Great minds differ on this. It’s certainly not obvious that Western culture and its values should be adopted universally. Children in non-Western, non-literate cultures, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly forced to go to school “for their own good.” Is it, though? Enforced schooling radically disrupts traditional cultures – permanently. There is ample evidence that such enforced enculturation leads to an impoverished life, both materially and socially. You may say that it’s all well and good for me, a white, educated, privileged male to decry such things. Fair comment. It may well be that traditional cultures are doomed anyway. At least I am asking the question: “What have we done?”

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I could write a whole lot more but you get the point. I can’t complain too much about literacy because it allows me to write this blog. At least I’ve given you food for thought. And speaking about food, let’s talk about recipes. The survival of written recipes from a vast array of historical periods and cultures is a great boon, but it is also limited. If you are a long-time reader you’ll be familiar with my constant complaints about problems in interpreting old recipes, based on only the written word. Too much information is missing. What is more, you really can’t learn how to cook from books alone. Somewhere along the line you need to watch other people cooking and/or take instruction from someone else – orally.  The written word is a supplement. There’d be no need for cooking classes if you can get all you need from books. I’ll readily admit that books are extremely useful for ideas, but I rarely follow a recipe directly.

So here I face a quandary. Do I celebrate literacy by writing down a recipe for you? Or do I indicate the limits of literacy by using a video? I’m going to go with the latter. Here are three instructional videos I made to demonstrate the preparation of an Argentine tortilla – so you’ll get to hear my voice.

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Part 1 is the most useful because it concerns making a basic egg batter for a variety of dishes such as English pancakes, Yorkshire pudding, and a whole lot more. This recipe is so useful that I’ve included it in my HINTS section (upper tab). Here’s the thing. I’ve made 100s of tortillas over the years. They are one of my favorites because they are quick, easy, and immensely versatile. I can make a perfect tortilla in a heartbeat without thinking. But communicating my knowledge is very difficult. I cooked dozens for my ex-girlfriend in her kitchen with her watching, and supervised her in cooking them several times. Hers were then, and still (as far as I know), awful – edible, but hardly worth the effort. She’s a good cook, but there’s a skill she’s missing and I can’t convey in words spoken or written.  You have a try.

Part 1 (The batter)


Part 2 (The filling)


Part 3 (The tortilla)

Sep 042016
 

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Argentina has celebrated this day as Immigrant’s Day (Día del inmigrante) since 1949 when Juan Perón declared it a national holiday to honor the country’s immigrant heritage.  I want to pay particular attention to this holiday this year because this year, especially, the status of immigrants has come into stark relief in the Brexit referendum in the UK, in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and in national politics throughout Europe and Australia. I am particularly sensitive to this topic because I have lived as an immigrant for almost all of my life.

I was born in Buenos Aires of British parents, so legally I am a natural-born citizen of two nations, Argentina and the United Kingdom, and I carry passports from both. I have spent very little of my life in either country. I grew up in Australia, where I was known as a “migrant” (more usually “pommie bastard”), and worked at a university in New York for almost my entire professional career. Now I live as an immigrant in Italy, having been one in China most recently. Being an immigrant comes naturally to me. Even though I am a citizen of the UK I feel like an immigrant when I visit. Argentina is my home.

I don’t get treated as a foreigner in many countries as long as I don’t open my mouth. When I am going about my business in Mantua, strangers (usually tourists) sometimes come up to me on the street to ask directions, thinking that I am Italian. In China it’s a different story, of course. English-speaking white people of European extraction living abroad like to refer to themselves as “ex-pats” because the term “immigrant” carries a stigma, and tends to conjure up people of color or of non-European heritage. But let’s be honest and call a spade a spade; if you are not living in the country in which you are a natural-born citizen, YOU ARE AN IMMIGRANT.

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The nations of the Americas are all nations of immigrants. Argentina happens to be proud of that fact, and uses this day to celebrate its immigrant heritage. To be fair, that heritage has been somewhat checkered. Presidents in the 19th century (particularly Sarmiento) sometimes had racist immigration policies, and slavery was normal for much of the 18th century into the 19th – even though it was gradually phased out after independence in 1812, but then followed by systematic discrimination and covert policies of genocide.  The African-Argentine population has declined from a peak of 30% or higher in some regions in the 19th century to a mere 0.37% in the 2010 census.

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Since its unification as a country, Argentine rulers intended the country to welcome immigration. Article 25 of the 1853 Constitution reads (in translation):

The Federal Government will encourage European immigration, and it will not restrict, limit or burden with any taxes the entrance into Argentine territory of foreigners who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teach the sciences and the arts.

The Preamble of the Constitution dictates a number of goals (justice, peace, defense, welfare and liberty) that apply “to all people in the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil.” The Constitution incorporates, along with other influences, the thought of Juan Bautista Alberdi, who expressed his opinion on the matter in succinct terms: “to rule is to populate.”

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The legal and organizational precedents of today’s National Migrations Office (Dirección Nacional de Migraciones) can be found in 1825, when Rivadavia created an Immigration Commission. After the Commission was dissolved, the government of Rosas continued to support immigration. Urquiza, under whose sponsorship the Constitution was drawn, encouraged the establishment of agricultural colonies in the Littoral (western Mesopotamia and north-eastern Pampas).

The first law dealing with immigration policies was Law 817 of Immigration and Colonization, of 1876. The General Immigration Office was created in 1898, together with the Hotel de Inmigrantes (Immigrants’ Hotel), in Buenos Aires. The liberal rulers of the late 19th century saw immigration as the chance to bring people from supposedly more civilized, enlightened countries into a sparsely populated land, thus diminishing the influence of aboriginal elements and turning Argentina into a modern society with a dynamic economy. So we have to admit that immigration had racist overtones which continue to this day. The indigenous populations, especially in the North, have suffered decades of oppression. The Qom are the worst example.

In 1902, a Law of Residence (Ley de Residencia) was passed, mandating the expulsion of foreigners who “compromise national security or disturb public order,” and, in 1910, a Law of Social Defense (Ley de Defensa Social) explicitly named ideologies deemed to have such effects. These laws were a reaction by the ruling elite against imported ideas such as labor unionism, anarchism and other forms of popular organization.

The modern National Migrations Office was created by decree on February 4, 1949, under the Technical Secretariat of the Presidency, in order to deal with the new post-war immigration scenario. Perón is infamous for welcoming former Nazis from Germany but he made two things explicit. 1. They were to live in peace and harmony, especially with Jews. He would not tolerate any kind of anti-Semitism. 2. He would not protect them if they were sought and captured by other nations seeking them for legal reasons.

Massive and continued immigration has been experienced all over Argentina (except for the Northwest), made up overwhelmingly of Europeans (90%). Neuquén and Corrientes provinces, however, have had a much smaller European influx but a large South American immigration, mainly from Chile and Brazil, respectively. The Chaco region (in the North) has had a moderate influx from Bolivia and Paraguay as well.

The majority of immigrants, since the 19th century, have come mostly from Italy and Spain. Also notable were Jewish immigrants escaping persecution, giving Argentina the highest Jewish population in Latin America, and the 7th in all the world. The total population of Argentina rose from 4 million in 1895 to 7.9 million in 1914, and to 15.8 million in 1947; during this time the country was settled by 1.5 million Spaniards and 1.4 million Italians, as well as Poles, Russians, French, Germans and Austrians (more than 100,000 each), plus large numbers of Portuguese, Greeks, Ukrainians, Croats, Czechs, Irish, British, Dutch, Scandinavians, as well as people from other European and Middle Eastern countries, prominently Syria and Lebanon. Argentine immigration records also mention immigrants from Australia, South Africa and the United States.

The latest census puts the number of immigrants currently in Argentina at 6.6 million who, thus, constitute around 15% of the population, making Argentina the country with the highest percentage of immigrants in the world. Nowadays there are significant numbers coming from Asia, especially China and Korea, settling mostly in enclaves in Buenos Aires, but notable for their ownership of convenience stores (called “chinos”) throughout the city. There’s a degree of xenophobia about the Chinese, but no one complains about being able to buy a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes at 1 am at the local chino.

So here’s my little rant. You’ll find a few pockets of xenophobia in Argentina, of course, but, generally speaking, it is a country of immigrants that welcomes new immigrants all the time, and where they become part of the culture. Ironically, I am not an immigrant in Argentina, although my Spanish has a weird accent and I’ve spent little time there as an adult. Soy Argentino y soy orgulloso. Vivan los inmigrantes!!!

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Today is celebrated with a huge festival in Oberá in Misiones province where the Parque de las Naciones celebrates just about every ethnic heritage imaginable. Permanent exhibits include a “village” consisting of house styles from a variety of cultures contributed by those nations.

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On my visit there 4 years ago I noticed that there was no British house in evidence – courtesy of mixed feelings that stem currently from the Malvinas War, but which have a long history due to various efforts by the British to invade Argentina in the 19th century. There is also a large hall displaying national costume from numerous countries, and during the immigrant festival there is a gigantic arena of stalls selling food from around the world.

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You’ll find every cuisine under the sun in restaurants in Buenos Aires. Indian is becoming increasingly popular although you have to really insist to get anything resembling a chile pepper in your dish because Argentinos cannot tolerate anything spicy. Sushi is a big hit, along with Japanese noodles. I’ve also stumbled on Malay and Greek restaurants.

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The one thing you have to hunt for in Buenos Aires’ restaurants is home cooking – what you might think of as local food. You can find it abundantly in the provinces, but not in the city. What you will find is pizza and pasta to drown in.

How do you want to celebrate immigrants today then? I know it’s craven of me not to give a recipe, but I’d suggest trying out the immigrant restaurant of your choice. Turkish is popular in Mantua, so I could give that a try for lunch, although I know that it will be nothing like Turkish food. For you, it’s all going to depend on where you live and which ethnicity is considered an immigrant population in your area.

 

Aug 302016
 

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Today is the birthday (1907) Leonor Fini, Argentine surrealist painter, designer, illustrator, and author, known for her depictions of powerful women. In English she is sometimes called “The Forgotten Bohemian.” She is not forgotten in Argentina.

Fini was born in Buenos Aires, to an Italian mother and Argentine father (of Italian descent). Her parents divorced when she was very young and her mother moved back to Italy.  She was raised in Trieste, her mother’s home city. Custody battles often involved Fini and her mother in sudden flights and disguises. She moved to Milan at the age of 17, and then to Paris, in either 1931 or 1932. There, she became acquainted with Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico, who inspired much of her work. She also came to know Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Salvador Dalí. She traveled Europe by car with Mandiargues and Cartier-Bresson where she was photographed nude in a swimming pool by Cartier-Bresson. The photograph of Fini sold in 2007 for $305,000 – the highest price paid at auction for one of his works to that date.

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Fini had no formal artistic training. Her first major exhibition was in 1939 in New York at Julian Levy’s Gallery. She was considered part of a pre-war generation of Parisian artists, and outlived most of her artist peers. Surrealist artists in France became very interested in her once she began setting herself up as an artist, and came to know her as important in the movement. She is mentioned in most comprehensive works about surrealism, although some leave her out (she did not consider herself to be a surrealist). In 1949 Frederick Ashton choreographed a ballet conceptualized by Fini, “Le Rêve de Leonor” (“Leonor’s Dream”) with music by Benjamin Britten. In London, she exhibited at the Kaplan gallery in 1960 and at the Hanover Gallery in 1967. In the summer of 1986 there was a retrospective at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris that drew in more than 5,000 people a day. It featured over 260 works in a variety of media. As a tribute to the many artistic and creative avenues that her career took throughout her lifetime, there were 100+ watercolors and drawings, around 80 theater/costume designs, and about 70 paintings, 5 masks, etc. Many of her paintings featured women in positions of power; an example of this is the painting La Bout du Monde where a female figure is submerged in water up to her breasts with human and animal skulls surrounding her. Madonna used the imagery in her video, “Bedtime Story” in 2006. In the spring of 1987 she had an exhibition at London’s Editions Graphique’s gallery. Fini was also featured in an exhibition entitled “Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation” at the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art in 1999.

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She painted portraits of Jean Genet, Anna Magnani, Jacques Audiberti, Alida Valli, Jean Schlumberger (jewelry designer) and Suzanne Flon as well as many other celebrities and wealthy visitors to Paris. While working for Elsa Schiaparelli she designed the flacon for the perfume, “Shocking”, which became the top selling perfume for the House of Schiaparelli.

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She designed costumes and decorations for theater, ballet and opera, including the first ballet performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris, “Les Demoiselles de la nuit”, featuring a young Margot Fonteyn. This was a payment of gratitude for Fini’s having been instrumental in finding the funding for the new ballet company. She also designed the costumes for two films, Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954) and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968), which starred 18-year-old Anjelica Huston and Moshe Dayan’s son, Assaf.

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In the 1970s, she wrote three novels, Rogomelec, Moumour, Contes pour enfants velu and Oneiropompe. Her friends included Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, and Alberto Moravia, Fabrizio Clerici and most of the other artists and writers living in or visiting Paris. She illustrated many works by the great authors and poets, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Shakespeare, as well as texts by new writers. She was very generous with her illustrations and donated many drawings to writers to help them get published. She is, perhaps, best known for her graphic illustrations for Histoire d’O.

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Fini once said:

Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.

She was, however, married once, for a brief period, to Fedrico Veneziani. They were divorced after she met the Italian Count, Stanislao Lepri, who abandoned his diplomatic career shortly after meeting Fini and lived with her thereafter. She met the Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński, known as Kot in Rome in January 1952. She was delighted to discover that he was the illegitimate half-brother of Sforzino Sforza, who had been one of her lovers. Kot joined Fini and Lepri in their Paris apartment in October 1952 and the three remained inseparable until their deaths. She later employed an assistant to join the household, which he described as “a little bit of prison and a lot of theatre.” One of his jobs was to look after her Persian cats. Over the years she acquired about 23 of them. They shared her bed and, at mealtimes, were allowed to roam the dining-table selecting what they wanted to eat.

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Fini died in her apartment in Paris in 1996. By that time her star had fallen, largely because the French art world has always been deeply misogynistic. Dali described her work as “Better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.” If you want a good tour of her art and life, go here: http://www.messynessychic.com/2015/06/09/the-forgotten-bohemian-queen-of-the-paris-art-world-leonor-fini/

I have spoken many times of the huge influence that Italian immigrants have had on Argentine culture and cuisine. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to think of Fini as an Italian Argentine given that she spent almost all of her life in Europe. Many people think of me the same way. Like Fini, I was born in Buenos Aires, but have spent most of my life in other countries. The thing is that when I returned, many decades later, I knew I was HOME. So I’ll give a recipe for a very common Argentine dish of Italian descent – fainá – a skillet-baked flatbread made with chickpea flour. Fainá can be eaten as a side dish, with toppings, or on top of pizza. Argentinos have no trouble overdoing things.

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Fainá

Ingredients

1½ cups chickpea flour
2 cups warm water
5 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

Instructions

Combine the chickpea flour and water in a bowl and stir well until thoroughly mixed. Set aside covered at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Foam will form on the top. Skim off the foam and whisk in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and salt to taste.

Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°C.

Heat a 10 inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until it is smoking hot. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and swirl it around over the heat to cover the surfaces of the skillet.

Pour in the chickpea batter in one go, and immediately place the skillet in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes. It should be golden all over. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve in wedges.