Jan 122019
 

Today is the birthday (1876) of John “Jack” Griffith London (born John Griffith Chaney), US journalist, novelist and social activist. London was born in San Francisco to an unwed mother in a working-class neighborhood that was not as impoverished as his later accounts suggested. London’s relationship with the truth was not always cordial. His purported father disowned him and his mother, and for much of his childhood his mother was unable to look after him, and turned over his care to Virginia Prentiss, an African-American former slave.

In 1889, London began working 12 to 18 hours a day at Hickmott’s Cannery. Seeking a way out, he borrowed money from his foster mother, bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank, and became an oyster pirate himself. In his memoir, John Barleycorn, he claims also to have taken French Frank’s mistress Mamie. After a few months, his sloop became damaged beyond repair, after which London hired on as a member of the California Fish Patrol.

In 1893, he signed on to the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for the coast of Japan. When he returned, the country was in the grip of the panic of ’93 and Oakland was swept by labor unrest. After grueling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, London joined Coxey’s Army protest on Washington DC and began life as a tramp. In 1894, he spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, New York. After many experiences as a hobo and a sailor, he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School. He contributed a number of articles to the high school’s magazine, The Aegis. His first published work was “Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”, an account of his sailing experiences.

As a schoolboy, London often studied at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a port-side bar in Oakland. At 17, he confessed to the bar’s owner, John Heinold, his desire to attend university and pursue a career as a writer. Heinold lent London tuition money to attend college. London desperately wanted to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In 1896, after a summer of intense studying to pass certification exams, he was admitted. Financial circumstances forced him to leave in 1897 and he never graduated. No evidence suggests that London wrote for student publications while studying at Berkeley.

While at Berkeley, London continued to study and spend time at Heinold’s saloon, where he was introduced to the sailors and adventurers who would influence his writing. In his autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn, London mentioned the pub’s likeness seventeen times. Heinold’s was the place where London met Alexander McLean, a captain known for his cruelty at sea. London based his protagonist Wolf Larsen, in the novel The Sea-Wolf, on McLean. Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is now unofficially named Jack London’s Rendezvous in his honor.

On July 12th 1897, London (age 21) and his sister’s husband sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush. This was the setting for some of his first successful stories. London’s time in the harsh Klondike, however, was detrimental to his health. Like so many other men who were malnourished in the goldfields, London developed scurvy. His gums became swollen, leading to the loss of his four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his hip and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with marks that always reminded him of the struggles he faced in the Klondike. Father William Judge, “The Saint of Dawson”, had a facility in Dawson that provided shelter, food and medicine to London and others. His struggles there inspired his famous short story, “To Build a Fire” (1902, revised in 1908).

London returned to Oakland to become an activist for socialism. He concluded that his only hope of escaping the work “trap” was to get an education and “sell his brains”. He saw his writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game. On returning to California in 1898, London began working to get published, a struggle described in his novel, Martin Eden (serialized in 1908, published in 1909). His first published story since high school was “To the Man On Trail”, which has frequently been collected in anthologies. When The Overland Monthly offered him only five dollars for it—and was slow paying—London came close to abandoning his writing career. In his words, “literally and literarily I was saved” when The Black Cat accepted his story “A Thousand Deaths”, and paid him $40—the “first money I ever received for a story.”

London began his writing career just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public audience and a strong market for short fiction. In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, (about $75,000 in today’s currency). Among the works he sold to magazines was a short story known as either “Diable” (1902) or “Bâtard” (1904), two editions of the same basic story; London received $141.25 for this story on May 27, 1902. In the text, a cruel French Canadian brutalizes his dog, and the dog retaliates and kills the man. London told some of his critics that a man’s actions are the main cause of the behavior of their animals, and he would show this in another story, The Call of the Wild. In early 1903, London sold The Call of the Wild to The Saturday Evening Post for $750, and the book rights to Macmillan for $2,000. Macmillan’s promotional campaign propelled it to swift success.

While living at his rented villa on Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, London met poet George Sterling; in time they became best friends. In 1902, Sterling helped London find a home closer to his own in nearby Piedmont. In his letters London addressed Sterling as “Greek”, owing to Sterling’s aquiline nose and classical profile, and he signed them as “Wolf”. London was later to depict Sterling as Russ Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1910) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913). In later life London indulged his wide-ranging interests by accumulating a personal library of 15,000 volumes. He referred to his books as “the tools of my trade”.

London accepted an assignment of the San Francisco Examiner to cover the Russo-Japanese War in early 1904, arriving in Yokohama on January 25th 1904. He was arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but released through the intervention of American ambassador Lloyd Griscom. After travelling to Korea, he was again arrested by Japanese authorities for straying too close to the border with Manchuria without official permission, and was sent back to Seoul. Released again, London was permitted to travel with the Imperial Japanese Army to the border, and to observe the Battle of the Yalu. London asked William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, to be allowed to transfer to the Imperial Russian Army, where he felt that restrictions on his reporting and his movements would be less severe. However, before this could be arranged, he was arrested for a third time in four months, this time for assaulting his Japanese assistants, whom he accused of stealing the fodder for his horse. Released through the personal intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, London departed the front in June 1904.

In 1905, London purchased a 1,000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain, for $26,450. He wrote: “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” He desperately wanted the ranch to become a successful business enterprise. Writing, always a commercial enterprise with London, now became even more a means to an end: “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate

His biographer, Clarice Stasz, writes that London “had taken fully to heart the vision, expressed in his agrarian fiction, of the land as the closest earthly version of Eden … he educated himself through the study of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. He conceived of a system of ranching that today would be praised for its ecological wisdom.” He was proud to own the first concrete silo in California, a circular piggery that he designed. He hoped to adapt the wisdom of Asian sustainable agriculture to the United States.

The ranch was an economic failure. Sympathetic observers such as Stasz treat his projects as potentially feasible, and ascribe their failure to bad luck or to being ahead of their time. Unsympathetic historians such as Kevin Starr suggest that he was a bad manager, distracted by other concerns and impaired by his alcoholism. Starr notes that London was absent from his ranch about six months a year between 1910 and 1916 and says, “He liked the show of managerial power, but not grinding attention to detail …. London’s workers laughed at his efforts to play big-time rancher [and considered] the operation a rich man’s hobby.”

London spent $80,000 ($2,230,000 in current value) to build a 15,000-square-foot stone mansion called Wolf House on the property. Just as the mansion was nearing completion, two weeks before he planned to move in, it was destroyed by fire. The ranch (abutting stone remnants of Wolf House) is now a National Historic Landmark and is protected in Jack London State Historic Park.

London witnessed animal cruelty in the training of circus animals, and his subsequent novels Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry included a foreword entreating the public to become more informed about this practice. In 1918, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Education Society teamed up to create the Jack London Club, which sought to inform the public about cruelty to circus animals and encourage them to protest this establishment. Support from Club members led to a temporary cessation of trained animal acts at Ringling-Barnum and Bailey in 1925.

London died November 22, 1916, in a sleeping porch in a cottage on his ranch. London had been a robust man but had suffered several serious illnesses, including scurvy in the Klondike. Additionally, during travels on the Snark, he had picked up unspecified tropical infections, and diseases, including yaws. At the time of his death, he suffered from dysentery, late-stage alcoholism, and uremia. He was in extreme pain and taking morphine.

London’s ashes were buried on his property not far from the Wolf House. London’s funeral took place on November 26th 1916, attended only by close friends, relatives, and workers on the property. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and buried next to some pioneer children, under a rock that belonged to the Wolf House.

Geraldine Duncann whose father was a close friend of Jack London has a website that details things he liked to cook, here: http://www.thequestingfeast.com/Article_Jack_London.html This recipe is a good one. I’m a big fan of raw oysters, but I do change things up from time to time with some cooked oysters, and using a wood grill is a worthy enterprise. It is also perfect for Jack London’s lifestyle.

This is another method of serving oysters that my father learned from Jack London.  It also uses Anchor Steam Beer as well as a lot of finely chopped garlic.          

Fresh live oysters in the shell
Finely minced garlic
Anchor Steam beer
Salt and pepper and favorite hot sauce

Scrub the shells of the oysters with a stiff brush under cold running water.  Discard any that are open and do not close when you tap the shell.  Place the oysters, on a rack over the glowing coals of a barbecue.  Leave until they just begin to open.  Using tongs, remove them and with an oyster knife, pry the shells the rest of the way open.  Place the oyster in the deep half of the shell.  Add a pinch of minced garlic and a bit of beer.  Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste and return to the barbecue and continue cooking to desired degree of doneness.  SPECTACULAR!

Oct 292018
 

Today is the birthday (1740) of James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, a Scottish biographer and diarist, best known for the biography he wrote of Samuel Johnson. Boswell was born in Blair’s Land on the east side of Parliament Close behind St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife Euphemia Erskine. As the eldest son, he was heir to his family’s estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire. His birthplace was the family’s town house on the east side of the close, just around the corner at the top of the steps.

At 19 he was sent to study law at the University of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith. While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this, his father ordered him home. Instead of obeying, though, Boswell ran away to London, where he spent three months, living the life of a libertine, before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning, he was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year. On 30th July 1762, Boswell passed his oral law exam, after which his father decided to raise his allowance to £200 a year and permitted him to return to London. In this period, Boswell wrote his London Journal and, on 16 May 1763, met Johnson for the first time. The pair became friends almost immediately. Johnson eventually nicknamed him “Bozzy”.

The first conversation between Johnson and Boswell is quoted in Life of Samuel Johnson as follows:

[Boswell:] “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.”

[Johnson:] “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. He spent a year there and although desperately unhappy the first few months, eventually quite enjoyed his time in Utrecht. After this, Boswell spent most of the next two years travelling around the continent, his Grand Tour. During this time, he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire with a recommendation letter of Constant d’Hermenches, and made a pilgrimage to Rome, where his portrait was painted by George Willison. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli. His well-observed diaries and correspondence of this time have been compiled into two books, Boswell in Holland and Boswell on the Grand Tour.

Boswell returned to London in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau’s mistress, with whom he had a brief affair on the journey home. After spending a few weeks there, he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. He practiced for over a decade, during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson. Nevertheless, he returned to London annually to mingle with Johnson and the rest of the London literary crowd, and to escape what he perceived as a mundane existence in Scotland.

Boswell was a major supporter of the Corsican Republic. Following the island’s invasion by France in 1768, Boswell attempted to raise public awareness and rally support for the Corsicans. He sent arms and money to the Corsican fighters, who were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Ponte Novu in 1769. Boswell attended the masquerade held at the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769 dressed as a Corsican Chief.

Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his frequent liaisons with prostitutes, until her death from tuberculosis in 1789. After his infidelities, he would deliver tearful apologies to her and beg her forgiveness, before again promising her, and himself, that he would reform. James and Margaret had four sons and three daughters. Two sons died in infancy; the other two were Alexander (1775–1822) and James (1778–1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773–1795), Euphemia (1774 – c. 1834) and Elizabeth, known as ‘Betsy’, (1780–1814). Boswell also had at least two extramarital children, Charles (1762–1764) and Sally (1767 – c. 1768).

Despite his relative literary success with accounts of his European travels, Boswell was only a moderately successful advocate, with the exception of the copyright infringement case of Donaldson v Beckett where Boswell represented the Scottish bookseller, Alexander Donaldson. By the late 1770s, Boswell descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Throughout his life, from childhood until death, he was beset by severe swings of mood which modern psychologists diagnose as bipolar disorder. His happier periods usually saw him relatively vice-free. His character mixed a superficial Enlightenment sensibility for reason and taste with a genuine and somewhat romantic love of the sublime and a propensity for occasionally puerile whimsy. The latter, along with his tendency for drink and other vices, caused many contemporaries and later observers to regard him as being too lightweight to be an equal in the literary crowd that he wanted to be a part of. However, his humor and innocent good nature won him many lifelong friends.

Boswell was a frequent guest of Lord Monboddo at Monboddo House, a setting where he gathered significant observations for his writings by association with Samuel Johnson, Lord Kames and other luminaries.

After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English Bar, which proved even less successful than his career in Scotland. In 1792 Boswell lobbied the Home Secretary to help gain royal pardons for four Botany Bay escapees including Mary Bryant. He also offered to stand for Parliament but failed to get the necessary support, and he spent the final years of his life writing his Life of Samuel Johnson. During this time his health began to fail due to venereal disease and his years of drinking. Boswell died in London in 1795. Close to the end of his life he became strongly convinced that the “Shakespeare papers”, including two previously unknown plays Vortigern and Rowena and Henry II, allegedly discovered by William Henry Ireland, were genuine. After Boswell’s death they proved to be forgeries created by Ireland himself. Boswell’s remains were interred in the crypt of the Boswell family mausoleum in what is now the old Auchinleck Kirkyard in Ayrshire. The mausoleum is attached to the old Auchinleck Kirk.

His biography is occasionally hailed as the greatest biography in English, but this assessment is heavily contested nowadays. The work was a popular and critical success when first published. It is regarded now as an important stage in the development of the modern genre of biography, but some modern critics object that the work cannot be considered a proper biography. While Boswell’s personal acquaintance with Johnson only began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson’s life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson’s life; Boswell makes various changes to Johnson’s quotations and even censors many comments. Nonetheless, modern biographers have found Boswell’s biography an important source of information on Johnson and his times.

Macaulay’s critique in the Edinburgh Review was highly influential and established a way of thinking of Boswell and his Life of Johnson which was to prevail for many years. He was damning of Croker’s editing: “This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed”, and held a mixed opinion of Boswell: “Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London…; such was this man, and such he was content and proud to be”. Macaulay also claimed “Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them”. Macaulay also criticized what he saw as a lack of discretion in the way the Life reveals Johnson’s and others’ personal lives, foibles, habits and private conversation; but recognized that it was this that made the Life of Johnson a great biography.

In the 1920s a great part of Boswell’s private papers, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. These provide a hugely revealing insight into the life and thoughts of the man. They were sold to the US collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University, which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. A second cache was discovered soon after and also purchased by Isham. A substantially longer edition of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1936 based on his original manuscript, edited by L. F. Powell. His London Journal 1762–63, the first of the Yale journal publications, appeared in 1950. The last, The Great Biographer, 1789–1795, was published in 1989.

These detailed and frank journals include voluminous notes on the Grand Tour of Europe that he took as a young man and, subsequently, of his tour of Scotland with Johnson. His journals also record meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including Lord Monboddo, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith.

Here is an interesting query by an assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition), the successor to Johnson’s dictionary:

I am an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Whilst revising the word ‘devilled’, I have come across a mysterious reference to a comment made by James Boswell that we can’t find in his writings. I was wondering if any of you reading this forum could help us find this ‘missing’ passage from Boswell’s writings.

According to Theodora Fitzgibbon, in The Art of British Cooking (1965) and Food of the Western World (1976), Boswell ‘frequently refers to partaking of a dish of “devilled bones” for supper’. This assertion has been repeated in various popular recipe books, newspaper articles, blogs, etc. Sometimes Boswell is said to have written about ‘devilled bones’ in The Life of Samuel Johnson, but Fitzgibbon herself doesn’t actually say that.

Here at the OED, we haven’t been able to find a reference to ‘devilled bones’ in a digital edition of any of Boswell’s works, including Life of Johnson. Neither could blogger Jane-Anne Hobbs (http://whatsforsupper-juno.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/devilled-mushrooms-on- ): ‘After an exhaustive search of Boswell’s books – at least the ones that have been digitised – I couldn’t find a single reference to the writer gnawing on spicy bones. I did discover with relief, though, that ‘bone’ in this context meant a devilled joint of meat, not a dry rib or femur or the like.’ Sadly Theodora Fitzgibbon has passed away, so we can’t ask her for help.

Has any reader of this forum come across a reference to ‘devilled bones’ in any of Boswell’s writings? At the moment, our earliest example of the adjective ‘devilled’ applied to a food is from 1796. Since James Boswell died in 1795, if he did write about ‘devilled bones’, it would be the earliest known evidence. If anyone can help, we would greatly appreciate it!

There’s a good recipe here https://www.jamesbeard.org/recipes/deviled-beef-bones  It’s modern, of course, but it will do the trick.

Jun 022018
 

Today is the birthday (1857) of Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet OM GCVO an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. He was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1924. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition

Elgar was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath, outside Worcester, England. His father, William Henry Elgar (1821–1906), was raised in Dover and had been apprenticed to a London music publisher. In 1841 William moved to Worcester, where he worked as a piano tuner and set up a shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. In 1848 he married Ann Greening (1822–1902), daughter of a farm worker. Edward was the fourth of their seven children. Ann Elgar had converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before Edward’s birth, and he was baptized and brought up as a Roman Catholic, to the disapproval of his father. William Elgar was a violinist of professional standard and held the post of organist of St. George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, from 1846 to 1885. By the age of 8, Elgar was taking piano and violin lessons, and his father, who tuned the pianos at many grand houses in Worcestershire, would sometimes take him along, giving him the chance to display his skill. Elgar’s friend and biographer W. H. “Billy” Reed wrote that Elgar’s early surroundings had an influence that “permeated all his work and gave to his whole life that subtle but none the less true and sturdy English quality.”

Until he was 15, Elgar received a general education at Littleton (now Lyttleton)[n 4] House school, near Worcester. However, his only formal musical training beyond piano and violin lessons from local teachers consisted of more advanced violin studies with Adolf Pollitzer, during brief visits to London in 1877–78. Elgar said, “my first music was learnt in the Cathedral … from books borrowed from the music library, when I was eight, nine or ten.” He worked through manuals of instruction on organ playing and read every book he could find on the theory of music Around this time, he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist.

Elgar gave piano and violin lessons and worked occasionally in his father’s shop. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee club, along with his father, and he accompanied singers, played the violin, composed and arranged works, and conducted for the first time. Pollitzer believed that, as a violinist, Elgar had the potential to be one of the leading soloists in the country, but Elgar himself, having heard leading virtuosi at London concerts, felt his own violin playing lacked a full enough tone, and he abandoned his ambitions to be a soloist. At 22 he took up the post of conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, three miles (five km) from Worcester. The band consisted of piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, three or four first and a similar number of second violins, occasional viola, ‘cello, double bass, and piano. Elgar coached the players and wrote and arranged their music, including quadrilles and polkas, for the unusual combination of instruments. The Musical Times wrote, “This practical experience proved to be of the greatest value to the young musician. … He acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these different instruments. … He thereby got to know intimately the tone colour, the ins and outs of these and many other instruments.” He held the post for five years, from 1879, travelling to Powick once a week. Another post he held in his early days was professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.

Elgar thrived in Worcester’s musical circles. He played in the violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and once played Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton. Elgar regularly played the bassoon in a wind quintet, alongside his brother Frank, an oboist (and conductor who ran his own wind ensemble). Elgar arranged numerous pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and others for the quintet, honing his arranging and compositional skills.

In his first trips abroad, Elgar visited Paris in 1880 and Leipzig in 1882. He heard Saint-Saëns play the organ at the Madeleine and attended concerts by first-rate orchestras. In 1882 he wrote, “I got pretty well dosed with Schumann (my ideal!), Brahms, Rubinstein & Wagner, so had no cause to complain.” In Leipzig he visited a friend, Helen Weaver, who was a student at the Conservatoire. They became engaged in the summer of 1883, but for unknown reasons the engagement was broken off the next year. Elgar was greatly distressed, and some of his later cryptic dedications of romantic music may have alluded to Helen and his feelings for her.

In 1882, seeking more professional orchestral experience, Elgar took a position as violinist in Birmingham with William Stockley’s Orchestra, for whom he played every concert for the next 7 years and where he later claimed he “learned all the music I know.” On 13th December 1883 he took part with Stockley in a performance at Birmingham Town Hall of one of his first works for full orchestra, the Sérénade mauresque – the first time one of his compositions had been performed by a professional orchestra. Stockley had invited him to conduct the piece but later recalled “he declined, and, further, insisted upon playing in his place in the orchestra. The consequence was that he had to appear, fiddle in hand, to acknowledge the genuine and hearty applause of the audience.”

When Elgar was 29, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, and published author of verse and prose fiction. Alice became his wife three years later. From then until her death, she acted as his business manager and social secretary, dealt with his mood swings, and was a perceptive musical critic. In her diary, she wrote, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.”

They moved to London to be closer to the primary music world in England but Elgar’s compositions made little impact on London’s musical scene. August Manns conducted Elgar’s orchestral version of Salut d’amour and the Suite in D at the Crystal Palace, and two publishers accepted some of Elgar’s violin pieces, organ voluntaries, and part songs, but got little other work and so was obliged to leave London in 1891 and return with his wife and child to Worcestershire, where he could earn a living conducting local musical ensembles and teaching. They settled in Alice’s former home town, Great Malvern.

During the 1890s, Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the English Midlands. The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896), both inspired by Longfellow, The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898) were all modestly successful, and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Co. Elgar was catching the attention of prominent critics, but their reviews were polite rather than enthusiastic. Although he was in demand as a festival composer, he was only just getting by financially and felt unappreciated. In 1898, he said he was “very sick at heart over music” and hoped to find a way to succeed with a larger work. His friend August Jaeger tried to lift his spirits: “A day’s attack of the blues … will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time of universal recognition will come.”

In 1899, that prediction suddenly came true. At the age of 42, Elgar produced the Enigma Variations, which were premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. In Elgar’s own words, “I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends … that is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ (the person) … and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose.” He dedicated the work “To my friends pictured within”. Probably the best known variation is “Nimrod”, depicting Jaeger. Purely musical considerations led Elgar to omit variations depicting Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, whose styles he tried but failed to incorporate in the variations. The large-scale work was received with general acclaim for its originality, charm and craftsmanship, and it established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. The Enigma Variations were well received in Germany and Italy, and remain to the present day a worldwide concert staple.

Elgar is probably best known popularly for the first of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which were composed between 1901 and 1930. It is familiar to millions of television viewers all over the world every year who watch the Last Night of the Proms, where it is traditionally performed. When the theme of the slower middle section (technically called the “trio”) of the first march came into his head, he told his friend Dora Penny, “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em – will knock ’em flat.” When the first march was played in 1901 at a London Promenade Concert, it was conducted by Henry J. Wood, who later wrote that the audience “rose and yelled … the one and only time in the history of the Promenade concerts that an orchestral item was accorded a double encore.”

Elgar was knighted at Buckingham Palace on 5th July 1904. Between 1905 and 1908, he held the post of Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. He had accepted the post reluctantly, feeling that a composer should not head a school of music. He was not at ease in the role, and his lectures caused controversy, with his attacks on the critics and on English music in general:

Vulgarity in the course of time may be refined. Vulgarity often goes with inventiveness … but the commonplace mind can never be anything but commonplace. An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white – all over white – and somebody will say, ‘What exquisite taste’. You know in your own mind, in your own soul, that it is not taste at all, that it is the want of taste, that is mere evasion. English music is white, and evades everything.”

He regretted the controversy and was glad to hand on the post to his friend Granville Bantock in 1908. His new life as a celebrity was a mixed blessing, as it interrupted his privacy, and he was in ill-health often. He complained to Jaeger in 1903, “My life is one continual giving up of little things which I love.” Both W. S. Gilbert and Thomas Hardy sought to collaborate with Elgar in this decade. Elgar refused, but would have collaborated with George Bernard Shaw had Shaw been willing.

When World War I broke out, Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the carnage, but his patriotic feelings were nonetheless aroused. He composed “A Song for Soldiers”, which he later withdrew. He signed up as a special constable in the local police and later joined the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve of the army. He composed patriotic works, Carillon, a recitation for speaker and orchestra in honor of Belgium and Polonia, an orchestral piece in honor of Poland. Land of Hope and Glory, already popular, became still more so, and Elgar wished (in vain) to have new, less nationalistic, words sung to the tune.

Although in the 1920s Elgar’s music was no longer in fashion, his admirers continued to present his works when possible. From 1926 onwards, Elgar made a series of recordings of his own works. Described by the music writer Robert Philip as “the first composer to take the gramophone seriously,” he had already recorded much of his music by the early acoustic-recording process for His Master’s Voice (HMV) from 1914 onwards, but the introduction of electrical microphones in 1925 transformed the gramophone from a novelty into a realistic medium for reproducing orchestral and choral music. Elgar was the first composer to take full advantage of the new technology. Fred Gaisberg of HMV, who produced Elgar’s recordings, set up a series of sessions to capture on disc the composer’s interpretations of his major orchestral works, including the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, the first and second symphonies, and the cello and violin concertos. For most of these, the orchestra was the LSO, but the Variations were played by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. Later in the series of recordings, Elgar also conducted two newly founded orchestras, Boult’s BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Elgar’s recordings were released on 78-rpm discs by both HMV and RCA Victor. After World War II, the 1932 recording of the Violin Concerto with the teenage Menuhin as soloist remained available on 78 and later on LP, but the other recordings were out of the catalogues for some years. When they were reissued by EMI on LP in the 1970s, they caused surprise to many by their fast tempos, in contrast to the slower speeds adopted by many conductors in the years since Elgar’s death.

In November 1931, Elgar was filmed by Pathé for a newsreel depicting a recording session of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London. It is believed to be the only surviving sound film of Elgar, who makes a brief remark before conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, asking the musicians to “play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before.” A memorial plaque to Elgar at Abbey Road was unveiled on 24 June 1993.

In his final years, Elgar experienced a musical revival. The BBC organized a festival of his works to celebrate his 75th birthday, in 1932. He flew to Paris in 1933 to conduct the Violin Concerto for Menuhin. While in France, he visited his fellow composer Frederick Delius at his house at Grez-sur-Loing. He was sought out by younger musicians such as Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent and John Barbirolli, who had championed his music when it was out of fashion. He began work on an opera, The Spanish Lady, and accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness, however, prevented their completion. Inoperable colorectal cancer was discovered during an operation on 8th October 1933. He told his consulting doctor, Arthur Thomson, that he had no faith in an afterlife: “I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion.” Elgar died on 23rd February 1934 at the age of 76 and was buried next to his wife at St. Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern.

It did not take me long to pick Malvern pudding as today’s recipe, given Elgar’s love for Malvern and the Malvern Hills. It originates in Malvern in Georgian times, and is basically a buttery fruit (usually apples) base, topped with a special custard, and either baked or grilled. Malvern pudding is listed as “endangered” in English cuisine.

Malvern Pudding

Ingredients

For the apple base

50gm/2oz butter

1kg/2lb 2oz cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

50gm/2oz granulated sugar

zest of 2 lemons

For the topping

110gm/4oz butter

50gm/2oz cornflour

825ml/1 pint 10fl oz whole milk

50gm/2oz granulated sugar

2 eggs, beaten

50g/m2oz demerara sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

Instructions

For the apples: heat a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add the butter and apples and cook for 6-7 minutes, or until the apples have softened. Add the sugar and lemon zest, stirring well, and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Transfer the apples to an ovenproof dish.

Preheat the broiler to medium.

For the topping: heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add half the butter and cook until foaming. Stir in the cornflour and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until thickened and smooth. Gradually add the milk to the pan, whisking continuously, until all of the milk is incorporated and the mixture is smooth and creamy. Cook for a further 2-3 minutes, or until thickened.

Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the granulated sugar and beaten eggs until well combined. Spoon the mixture over the apples in the ovenproof dish.

Mix the demerara sugar and ground cinnamon together in a bowl, then sprinkle over the top of the dish and dot with the remaining butter. Grill for 5-6 minutes, or until golden-brown and bubbling.

Serve immediately.

Dec 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1870) of Hector Hugh Munro, who usually wrote under the pen name Saki, but also as H. H. Munro. His works are not nearly as well known now as those of Oscar Wilde, who influenced his style, or P. G. Wodehouse who followed him. He satirized Edwardian society in short stories that were usually witty and mischievous, but also often had a dark, macabre side absent from Wilde and Wodehouse. Beside his short stories (which were first published in newspapers and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland); and When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion and occupation of Britain.

Munro was born in Akyab in British Burma, which was then still part of the British Raj, governed from Calcutta. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police and Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. In 1872, on a home visit to England, Mary Munro was charged by a cow, and the shock caused her to miscarry. She died soon after. After the death of Munro’s mother, Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Hector, home to England. The children were sent to Broadgate Villa, in Pilton village near Barnstaple, North Devon to be raised by their grandmother and paternal aunts Charlotte and Augusta in a strict and puritanical household. It is said that they were most likely models for a few of his characters, notably ‘The Lumber Room’ and ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Leading slightly insular lives Munro and his siblings, during their early years were educated under tutelage of governesses. At the age of 12 Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and then as a boarder at Bedford School. In 1887, after his retirement, his father returned from Burma, and embarked upon a series of European travels with Hector and his siblings.

Munro followed his father in 1893 into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma, but successive bouts of fever caused his return to England after only 15 months. Munro started his writing career as a journalist for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, and Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook. His first book The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 1900, under his real name, but proved to be something of a false start.

Whilst he was writing The Rise of the Russian Empire, he made his first foray into short story writing and published a piece called ‘Dogged’ in St Paul’s in February 1899. He then moved into the world of political satire in 1900 with a collaboration with Francis Carruthers Gould entitled “Alice in Westminster”. Gould produced the sketches, and Munro wrote the text accompanying them, using the pen-name “Saki” for the first time. The series lampooned political figures of the day (‘Alice in Downing Street’ begins with the memorable line, ‘”Have you ever seen an Ineptitude?”‘ – referring to a zoomorphised Arthur Balfou, and was published in the Westminster Gazette.

In 1902 he moved to The Morning Post, to work as a foreign correspondent, first in the Balkans, and then in Russia, where he was witness to the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg. He then went on to Paris, before returning to London. In the intervening period his first collection of short stories (as opposed to collections of political satires), Reginald had been published in 1904, the stories having first appeared in the Westminster Gazette. He had also been contributing pieces for the Morning Post,  Bystander, and Westminster Gazette. He kept a place in Mortimer Street, wrote, played bridge at the Cocoa Tree Club, and lived simply. Munro was gay, and because male homosexuality was illegal in England at the time, he kept his sexuality a secret.

The collection, Reginald in Russia, appeared in 1910, and The Chronicles of Clovis was published in 1911, and Beasts and Super-Beasts in 1914, along with many other short stories that appeared in newspapers not published in collections in his lifetime.

At the start of the First World War Munro was 43 and officially over-age to enlist, but he refused a commission and joined the 2nd King Edward’s Horse as an ordinary trooper. He later transferred to the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, in which he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916 he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Ancre, when he was killed by a German sniper. According to several sources, his last words were “Put that bloody cigarette out!” Munro has no known grave. He is commemorated on Pier and Face 8C 9A and 16A of the Thiepval Memorial.

The pen name “Saki” is most commonly assumed to be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Both close friend Rothay Reynolds and sister Ethel Munro confirm this in their published accounts of Munro.

I was not particularly taken with Saki’s short stories when I was a teenager because the Edwardian world they were satirizing was alien to me. To be fair, I felt the same way about Wilde, but I warmed to him later on. Saki got lost in the shuffle. Here’s some quotes that restore my interest, to a degree:

He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.

The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.

A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”

Romance at short notice was her specialty.

The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.

Every reformation must have its victims. You can’t expect the fatted calf to share the enthusiasm of the angels over the prodigal’s return.

Confront a child, a puppy, and a kitten with a sudden danger; the child will turn instinctively for assistance, the puppy will grovel in abject submission, the kitten will brace its tiny body for a frantic resistance.

I hate posterity – it’s so fond of having the last word.”

To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening.

I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.

The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

For our recipe of the day we can start here:

I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion. They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There’s nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.

I am sure he is thinking about oysters on the half shell, and that would certainly be an appropriate treat for today. I’ve not had oysters on the half shell in over 8 years. I miss them, but Asia is not where I want to sample them. Oyster soup might be a better bet, and, of course, I must turn to Mrs Beeton. Six dozen oysters for soup for 8 people might seem a bit over the top, but in Victorian and Edwardian days oysters were cheap and plentiful. She does get a bit carried away at the end.

OYSTER SOUP.

I.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 dozen of oysters, 2 quarts of white stock, 1/2 pint of cream, 2 oz. of butter, 1-1/2 oz. of flour; salt, cayenne, and mace to taste.

Mode.—Scald the oysters in their own liquor; take them out, beard them, and put them in a tureen. Take a pint of the stock, put in the beards and the liquor, which must be carefully strained, and simmer for 1/2 an hour. Take it off the fire, strain it again, and add the remainder of the stock with the seasoning and mace. Bring it to a boil, add the thickening of butter and flour, simmer for 5 minutes, stir in the boiling cream, pour it over the oysters, and serve.

Time.—1 hour. Average cost, 2s. 8d. per quart.

Seasonable from September to April.

Sufficient for 8 persons.

Note.—This soup can be made less rich by using milk instead of cream, and thickening with arrowroot instead of butter and flour.

II.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 quarts of good mutton broth, 6 dozen oysters, 2 oz. butter, 1 oz. of flour.

Mode.—Beard the oysters, and scald them in their own liquor; then add it, well strained, to the broth; thicken with the butter and flour, and simmer for 1/4 of an hour. Put in the oysters, stir well, but do not let it boil, and serve very hot.

Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 2s. per quart.

Seasonable from September to April.

Sufficient for 8 persons.

SEASON OF OYSTERS.—From April and May to the end of July, oysters are said to be sick; but by the end of August they become healthy, having recovered from the effects of spawning. When they are not in season, the males have a black, and the females a milky substance in the gill. From some lines of Oppian, it would appear that the ancients were ignorant that the oyster is generally found adhering to rocks. The starfish is one of the most deadly enemies of these bivalves. The poet says:—

      The prickly star creeps on with full deceit
      To force the oyster from his close retreat.
      When gaping lids their widen’d void display,
      The watchful star thrusts in a pointed ray,
      Of all its treasures spoils the rifled case,
      And empty shells the sandy hillock grace.

Dec 092017
 

Today is the birthday (1848) of Joel Chandler Harris, a US journalist and author best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories. Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where he served as an apprentice on a plantation during his teenage years. He spent most of his adult life in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution. The Uncle Remus collection has had a mixed reception over the years. Some see it as racist, and an unwarranted appropriation of African-American folktales, while others see it as a groundbreaking and highly influential body of literature. There’s room for both views.

Harris’ mother, Mary Ann Harris, was an Irish immigrant, and his father, whose identity remains unknown, abandoned Mary Ann and the infant shortly after his birth. The boy was named Joel after his mother’s attending physician, Dr. Joel Branham, and Chandler was the name of his mother’s uncle. Harris remained self-conscious of his illegitimate birth throughout his life. A prominent physician, Dr. Andrew Reid, gave the Harris family a small cottage to use behind his mansion. Mary Harris worked as a seamstress and helped neighbors with their gardening to support herself and her son. She was an avid reader and instilled in her son a love of language.  He wrote later in life, “My desire to write—to give expression to my thoughts—grew out of hearing my mother read The Vicar of Wakefield.” Dr. Reid also paid for Harris’ school tuition for several years. In 1856, Harris briefly attended Kate Davidson’s School for Boys and Girls, but transferred to Eatonton School for Boys later that year. He had an undistinguished academic record and a habit of truancy. Harris excelled in reading and writing, but was mostly known for his pranks, mischief, and sense of humor. Practical jokes helped Harris cloak his shyness and insecurities about his red hair, Irish ancestry, and illegitimacy, leading to both trouble and a reputation as a leader among the older boys.

Harris quit school at age 16 to work. In March 1862, Joseph Addison Turner, owner of Turnwold Plantation nine miles east of Eatonton, hired Harris to work as a printer’s devil for his newspaper The Countryman. Harris learned to set type for the paper, and Turner allowed him to publish his own poems, book reviews, and humorous paragraphs. Harris lived on Turnwold Plantation, Joe Harris and had access to Turner’s library where he read Chaucer, Dickens, Sir Thomas Browne, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Thackeray, and Edgar Allan Poe. While at Turnwold Plantation, Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during time off. He was less self-conscious there and felt his humble background as an illegitimate, red-headed son of an Irish immigrant helped foster an intimate connection with the slaves. He absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of people like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy. The African-American animal tales they shared later became the foundation and inspiration for the Uncle Remus tales. George Terrell and Old Harbert in particular became models for Uncle Remus, as well as role models for Harris. Turner shut down The Countryman in May 1866 and Harris left the plantation with useless Confederate money and very few possessions.

Harris bounced around newspapers in the South until in 1876 he was hired by Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution, where he would remain for the next 24 years. In addition, he published local-color stories in magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Century. Not long after taking the newspaper job, Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to “preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future.” The tales were reprinted across the United States, and Harris was approached by publisher D. Appleton and Company to compile them for a book. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings was published near the end of 1880.

Here’s his arguably most famous retelling of a slave tale: “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby”

“Didn’t the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?” asked the little boy the next evening.

“He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho’s you born–Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn’t hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin’ down de road–lippity-clippity, clippity -lippity–dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin’ ‘long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz ‘stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – `nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.

“`How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

“Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’.

“‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en  I’m gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.

“Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’ ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck ‘er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis’ stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De tar hilt ‘im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Ef you don’t lemme loose, I’ll knock you agin,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch ‘er a wipe wid de udder han’, en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain’y sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Tu’n me loose, fo’ I kick de natal stuffin’ outen you,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don’t tu’n ‘im loose he butt ‘er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa’ntered fort’, lookin’ dez ez innercent ez wunner yo’ mammy’s mockin’-birds.

“`Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. `You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo’. `I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain’t gwineter take no skuse,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee.”

Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.

“Did the fox eat the rabbit?” asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.

“Dat’s all de fur de tale goes,” replied the old man. “He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ‘long en loosed ‘im – some say he didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ‘long.”

I’m not going to venture too far into the deep, dark, murky waters of Uncle Remus criticism. Disney’s Song of the South makes Uncle Remus and slavery in general into a playful, happy-go-lucky romp that is a travesty of the truth, but Harris is not responsible for that image; that’s on Disney’s scorecard. Harris seems to me to be genuinely caring for the tales and making an honest effort to present them in authentic voice. My professor at UNC when I was taking an MA in folklore had nothing good to say about Harris because the Uncle Remus tales were not verbatim transcriptions of narratives from slaves. This critique is just rank anachronism. In Harris’ day there were no professional folklorists with tape recorders faithfully notating tales and songs. The Grimms documented peasant tales and then edited them for publication, even though they were scholars of language and could have given verbatim versions. Andrew Lang was a professional folklorist, and he too dressed up folktales for publication. The only reason folklore as a discipline got started in the first place – as a branch of anthropology – was that early folklorists believed that uneducated peasants were the unwitting bearers of the riches of ancient cultures, and even though the modern tales and songs repeated by poor rural laborers were debased in comparison with the original high art that spawned them (because the peasants were careless with the treasures they had), the glories of old could be glimpsed in them. I hope I have contributed to showing that this point of view is complete nonsense. In comparison with the scholars, I would say that Harris’ retellings of the slave tales are probably truer to the original than those of the scholars.

I could also get into whether Harris was appropriating African-American culture because he was a privileged white man, whether he was patronizing to African-American voices, etc. etc., but I won’t. Figure it out for yourself. There is no doubt in my mind that he preserved something that would have been lost otherwise. Among other things he helped the cause of anthropologists who wanted to counter the popular falsehood that African slaves arrived in the U.S. with nothing, and their subsequent acculturation was entirely Euro-centric. NO !!! Africans brought African culture (of various types) with them and it had a profound influence on the development of music, art, and literature in the United States. Many of the Uncle Remus tales have clear antecedents in West, Central, and South African animal trickster tales, the animal in question being either a hare or a spider. Some tales, virtually identical in basic form with Brer Rabbit tales, still exist in traditional African settings, the tar baby story being very common in numerous African cultures.

Uncle Remus makes reference to hoe cakes, or Johnny cakes, now and again, so here’s your recipe. Hoe cakes are griddle cakes similar to American breakfast pancakes, but with cornmeal mixed into the flour, and rather smaller. They have been popular in the South since plantation days. Nowadays some cooks add flavorings such as vanilla or nutmeg, but old-fashioned hoe cakes have none. They are usually eaten with butter and syrup. I suppose Aunt Jemima syrup is cutting a little close to the bone.

Hoe Cakes

Ingredients

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
2½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
¾ cup milk
½ cup water
⅓ cup melted butter
butter for frying

Instructions

Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, water, egg, and melted butter. Mix the ingredients thoroughly to form a smooth batter.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add a knob of butter and let it melt. Using a ladle that holds about 2 tablespoons, drop the pancake batter into the hot pan to make the hoe cakes one at a time. Do not overcrowd. I can usually make 4 in one batch.

Let each hoe cake fry until brown and crisp on one side. The top will bubble a little and start to set.  Turn with a spatula and brown the other side.

Serve immediately with butter and syrup.

Oct 312017
 

Today is generally taken to be the birthday (1795) of John Keats, one of the great English Romantic poets. There’s a little confusion about the actual day because his family celebrated his birthday on the 29th but the baptismal register records his date of birth as the 31st, and this is generally accepted as the correct date. I will too. Keats holds a very special place for me because my form master made me learn To Autumn by heart when I was 11 so that I could stand and recite it on command when special visitors, such as school inspectors, visited the classroom. My voice had not yet broken, so I had a clear treble with a strong English accent. I was also quite content to show off. My teacher, Mr Summerton, who was a complete pig, not only made me recite the poem endlessly, he also made a tape recording of me – very special for 1962. I remember marveling at hearing the sound of my own voice for the first time. I’ll give the pig credit for that, and for a lifetime’s pleasure with the ode. Just last year I had the immense satisfaction of spending many hours exploring the poem with my students. I think they understood its power by the time I was done with my rhapsodic lectures – who knows?

I’ll explore a little bit of Keats’s biography, but you’ll have to do most of that for yourself if you are interested. Then I’ll rhapsodize a bit more about his words before my recipe of the day. Keats was born in Moorgate in London. He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, but there is no evidence to support his belief. The Globe pub now occupies the site. He was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in Enfield, close to his grandparents’ house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman’s translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, “always in extremes”, given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

In April 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died from a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke’s school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbor and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as “the most placid time in Keats’s life.”

From 1814, Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £50,000 in today’s money) and a portion of his mother’s legacy, £8000 (about £500,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children. It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats’s mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to Keats’s expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.

Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion, that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload. Keats’s long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy’s Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor. He lodged near the hospital, at 28 St Thomas’s Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate. He did eventually complete his training. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.

 

You can worry about the struggles he had with money, career, ambitions, and poetry on your own if you want. I’ll just focus on 1819, his annus mirabilis, sometimes called the year of 6 odes, which was to cement his reputation as a poet, although not substantially until after his death in 1821. He died thinking that his poetry would soon be forgotten, even though he had achieved some fame, his critics were decidedly mixed in their opinions of his work during his lifetime.  Keats wrote the first five odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring at his home, Wentworth Place near Hampstead Heath, and he composed “To Autumn” in September after an autumnal evening walk near Winchester. The first five are considered now to have a kind of thematic unity, and contain some immortally memorable lines:

“Beauty is truth—truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Grecian Urn)

“To Autumn” shifts the emphasis of the first five from spring to autumn and, hence, from budding life to death. Keats perhaps knew he was dying (he died one year later), and the poem speaks to the need not to dwell on the sorrows of the end of life. Look at the lines that begin the 3rd stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–

Endings are as splendid as beginnings. What did I know about this stuff when I learnt the poem at age 10? Absolutely nothing. But last year when I tried to teach the poem to Italian students the images resonated much more with me. At 66 I am in the autumn of my life and it is a very satisfying time for me. I love the autumn of the year the best of all seasons, and I love the autumn of my life. Everything planted in the spring is ripe and ready to harvest. Here’s the full poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The consciously archaic and arcane vocabulary was a bit much for my Italian students, and, I confess, is a bit much for me as well. Do you know how long it takes to explain what “thatch-eves” are to non-native speakers? That’s all right for me, but the “thy’s” and “thou’s” grate a little. At least I got to explain that English used to have an informal second person singular.

Before his doctor insisted on a Spartan diet, Keats was quite the glutton. Here’s an excerpt he wrote to Mrs Wylie, his brother’s mother-in-law, from Inverness on August 6th 1818, when he was on a walking tour of Scotland:

I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.

This is one of the earliest references to sandwiches in English, and possibly the first to roast beef sandwiches (one word “roastbeef” is correct for the time). Thinking in terms of 12 or 24 at one go boggles the mind. Thinking about roast beef sandwiches is making me hungry as I type. I used to eat roast beef sandwiches with English mustard when I was a boy – following my father’s lead – but when I was at Oxford I was having a pub lunch one day, asked for a roast beef sandwich, and the landlord said, “mustard or horseradish?” I’d never heard of eating beef with horseradish, and told him so. He opined that everyone of good taste ate horseradish on roast beef sandwiches, so I agreed to try, and the rest is history. As far as I am concerned roast beef and horseradish are the Castor and Pollux of the sandwich world.

English sandwiches tend to be a bit slender, certainly in comparison with their New York deli counterparts.  First roast beef sandwich I had in a deli on the upper West Side had more beef on it than my family ever had between the 5 of us for Sunday dinner. Somewhere in between the two extremes is more my speed these days. I like to roast the beef quite rare, but well caramelized on the outside, refrigerate what’s left from dinner, and slice it thin the next day. Pile the beef on freshly baked bread slathered with prepared horseradish and have at it. I don’t like extras such as lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumber. Bread, beef and horseradish is superb on its own. I like a nice hearty, crusty bread, but a crusty roll will do at a pinch.

Oct 212017
 

Today is the birthday (1833) of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a Swedish chemist best known for inventing dynamite and for establishing the Nobel prizes. The two are inextricably entwined, so, at the risk of repeating what you already know, I’ll dribble on for a while about Nobel, explosives, bombs, guns, and prizes before giving you a recipe.

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872), an inventor and engineer, and Carolina Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel (1805–1889). The couple married in 1827 and had 8 children, only 4 of whom survived past childhood. As a boy Alfred Nobel was interested in engineering, particularly explosives, learning the basic principles from his father at a young age. Because of various business failures, Nobel’s father moved to Saint Petersburg in 1837 and was successful there as a manufacturer of machine tools and explosives. He invented modern plywood and started work on the torpedo. In 1842, the family joined him in the city. Now prosperous, his parents were able to send Nobel to private tutors and the boy excelled in his studies, particularly in chemistry and languages, becoming fluent in English, French, German and Russian. For 18 months, from 1841 to 1842, Nobel went to the only school he ever attended as a child, the Jacobs Apologistic School in Stockholm.

As a young man, Nobel studied with chemist Nikolai Zinin; then, in 1850, went to Paris for further studies. There he met Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerin three years earlier. Sobrero strongly opposed the use of nitroglycerin, as it was unpredictable, exploding when subjected to heat or pressure. But Nobel became interested in finding a way to control and use nitroglycerin as a commercially viable explosive, since it had much more power than gunpowder. At age 18, he went to the United States for 1 year to study chemistry, working for a short period under John Ericsson, who designed the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

The Nobel family factory produced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856), but had difficulty switching back to regular domestic production when the fighting ended and they filed for bankruptcy. In 1859, Nobel’s father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerin. Nobel invented a detonator in 1863, and in 1865 designed the blasting cap. On 3 September 1864, a shed used for preparation of nitroglycerin exploded at the factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, killing five people, including Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Dogged and unfazed by more minor accidents, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing.

Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated in an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to handle, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as “dynamite.” Nobel demonstrated his explosive for the first time that year, at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey in England. In order to help reestablish his name and improve the image of his business from the earlier controversies associated with the dangerous explosives, Nobel had also considered naming the highly powerful substance “Nobel’s Safety Powder” but settled with Dynamite instead, referring to the Greek word for “power” (δύναμις — dynamis).

Nobel later combined nitroglycerin with various nitrocellulose compounds, similar to collodion, but settled on a more efficient recipe combining another nitrate explosive, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a more powerful explosive than dynamite. ‘Gelignite’, or blasting gelatin, as it was named, was patented in 1876; and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate and various other substances. Gelignite was more stable, transportable and conveniently formed to fit into bored holes, like those used in drilling and mining, than the previously used compounds and was adopted as the standard technology for mining in the late 19th century bringing Nobel significant wealth, though at a cost to his health. An offshoot of this research resulted in Nobel’s invention of ballistite, the precursor of many modern smokeless powder explosives and still used as a rocket propellant.

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel, who never had a wife or children, was disappointed with what he read and was subsequently concerned with how he would be remembered.

Nobel’s brothers, Ludvig and Robert, had exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel was issued 355 patents internationally and by the time of his death his business had established more than 90 armaments factories, despite his stated belief in pacifism.

On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish a set of prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will allocated 94% of his total assets, 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (SEK), to establish the five Nobel Prizes. This converted to £1,687,837 (GBP) at the time. In 2012, the capital was worth around SEK 3.1 billion (USD 472 million, EUR 337 million).

The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, in chemistry, and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for literary work “in an ideal direction” and the fifth prize is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international unity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

On December 10, 1896, Alfred Nobel succumbed to a lingering heart ailment, suffered a stroke, and died.  His family, friends and colleagues were unaware that had left most of his wealth in trust to fund what are now known as the Nobel Prizes. He is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

Today, as it happens, is Apple Day. The celebration started in England and has since spread to other countries where apples are grown. If I am still at it next year I’ll write a blog post on Apple Day on this day. For now, let’s have a recipe for Swedish apple pie in honor of Nobel. Swedish apple pie is actually a cross between a pie and a pudding, but it is one of my favorites for a quick dessert. Granny Smith apples are probably the best for this recipe, but use whatever good baking apple suits your fancy. Don’t use eating apples. See if you can find true cinnamon as well; it beats the generic cassia you get in cheap spice racks in supermarkets. You’ll need to go online, but it’s worth it – trust me.

Swedish Apple Pie

Ingredients

1 ½ lb apples – peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
¾ cup melted butter
1 egg, beaten

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Toss the apple slices with 1 tablespoon of sugar, and pour them into a pie plate.

Thoroughly mix together 1 cup of sugar with the flour, cinnamon, butter, and egg in a bowl. Spread this mixture evenly over the top of the pie.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until the apples have cooked and the topping is golden brown.

May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.

Oct 272016
 

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Today is the birthday (1782) of Niccolò Paganini, Genovese violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and is still known as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1 are perhaps the best known of his compositions, and have served as an inspiration for later composers.

Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, then capital of the Republic of Genoa, the third of the six children of Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. Paganini’s father was an unsuccessful maritime trader, but he managed to supplement his income through playing the mandolin. At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven (mandolin and violin have the same fingering). His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons. Paganini studied under various local violinists, including Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. Paganini and his father then traveled to Parma to seek further guidance from Alessandro Rolla. But upon listening to Paganini’s playing, Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer and, later, Paer’s own teacher, Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.

The French invaded northern Italy in March 1796 forcing the Paganinis to flee to their country property in Romairone, near Bolzaneto. It was in this period that Paganini is believed to have developed his guitar playing. He became adept on the guitar, but preferred to play it in exclusively intimate settings, rather than at public concerts. He later described the guitar as his “constant companion” on his concert tours. By 1800, Paganini and his father traveled to Livorno, where Paganini played in concerts and his father resumed his maritime work. In 1801, the 18-year-old Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. He quickly earned fame as a violinist, gambler, and womanizer.

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In 1805, Lucca was annexed by Napoleonic France, and the region was ceded to Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi. Paganini became a violinist for the Baciocchi court, while giving private lessons to Elisa’s husband, Felice. In 1807, Baciocchi became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her court was transferred to Florence. Paganini was part of the entourage, but, towards the end of 1809, he left Baciocchi to resume his freelance career.

For the next few years, Paganini returned to touring in the areas surrounding Parma and Genoa. Though he was very popular with the local audience, he was still not very well known in the rest of Europe. His first breakthrough came from an 1813 concert at La Scala in Milan which was a great success. As a result, Paganini began to attract the attention of other prominent, but more conservative, musicians across Europe. His early encounters with Charles Philippe Lafont and Louis Spohr created intense rivalry. His concert activities, however, were still limited to Italy for the next few years.

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Paganini’s violin technique (and virtuosity) are still the subject of debate among music historians. Though some of the virtuoso techniques frequently employed by Paganini were already practiced by other musicians, most accomplished violinists of the time focused on intonation and bowing techniques. Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) was considered a pioneer in transforming the violin from an ensemble instrument to a solo instrument. In the meantime, the polyphonic capability of the violin was firmly established through the Sonatas and Partitas BWV 1001–1006 of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Other notable violinists included Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) and Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), who, in their compositions, reflected the increasing technical and musical demands on the violinist. Although the role of the violin in music drastically changed through this period, techniques requiring agility of the fingers and the bow were still considered unorthodox and discouraged by the established community of violinists.

Much of Paganini’s playing (and his violin composition) was influenced by two violinists, Pietro Locatelli (1693–1746) and August Duranowski (Auguste Frédéric Durand) (1770–1834). During Paganini’s study in Parma, he came across the 24 Caprices of Locatelli (L’arte di nuova modulazione – Capricci enigmatici or The art of the new style – the enigmatic caprices). Published in the 1730s, they were shunned by the musical authorities for their technical innovations, and were forgotten by the musical community at large. Around the same time, Durand, a former student of Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824), became a celebrated violinist. He was renowned for his use of harmonics and the left hand pizzicato in his performance. Paganini was impressed by Durand’s innovations and showmanship, which later also became his own hallmarks.

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There is also a purely physical aspect to Paganini’s violin techniques, particularly his flexibility. He had exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, which is an extraordinary feat even by today’s standards. This almost unnatural ability may have been a result of Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that results in abnormally long fingers.

In 1827, Pope Leo XII honored Paganini with the Order of the Golden Spur. His fame spread across Europe with a concert tour that started in Vienna in August 1828, stopping in every major European city in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia until February 1831 in Strasbourg. This was followed by tours in Paris and Britain. His technical ability and his willingness to display it received widespread critical acclaim. In addition to his own compositions, Paganini also performed modified versions of works (primarily concertos) written by his early contemporaries, such as Rodolphe Kreutzer and Giovanni Battista Viotti.

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Throughout his life Paganini suffered chronic illnesses. His concert schedule, as well as his extravagant lifestyle, took their toll on his health. He was diagnosed with syphilis as early as 1822, and his remedy, which included mercury and opium, came with serious physical and psychological side effects. In 1834, while still in Paris, he was treated for tuberculosis. Though his recovery was reasonably quick, after the illness his career was marred by frequent cancellations due to various health problems, from the common cold to depression, which lasted from days to months.

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In September 1834, Paganini put an end to his concert career and returned to Genoa. He devoted his time to the publication of his compositions and violin methods. He accepted students, of whom two enjoyed moderate success: violinist Camillo Sivori and cellist Gaetano Ciandelli. Neither, however, considered Paganini helpful or inspirational. In 1835, Paganini returned to Parma, this time under the employ of Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, Napoleon’s second wife, and was put in charge of reorganizing her court orchestra. However, he eventually came into conflict with the players and court, so his ideas were never realized. In Paris, he befriended the 11-year-old Polish virtuoso Apollinaire de Kontski, giving him some lessons and a signed testimonial. In 1836, Paganini returned to Paris to set up a casino. Its immediate failure left him in financial ruin, and he auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses. At Christmas of 1838, he left Paris for Marseilles and, after a brief stay, travelled to Nice where his physical condition worsened. In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the last rites. Paganini assumed the sacrament was premature, and refused.

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A week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, and his widely rumored association with the devil, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist František Ondříček persuaded Paganini’s grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist’s body. After this bizarre episode, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.

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This link will give you an idea of Paganini’s playing style via some of his most well known compositions:

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

I don’t much care for virtuosity for its own sake, and it’s difficult at this stage without being able to hear Paganini, or a recording, to be able to assess his playing. Nowadays the violinists who play Paganini’s caprices seem delighted to be able to play them at all. They can be very difficult technically. Did he breathe his soul into his playing along with his skill?  I hope so.

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I’d like to highlight the cuisine of Cremona to celebrate Paganini because Cremona was, and still is, the center of expert violin making in Italy. This is where Giuseppe Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari, and several members of the Amati family made their instruments in the 17th and 18th century. The cuisine of Cremona is also justifiably famous. My problem is – as always – that you have to go to Cremona to taste it. The ingredients are local and the cooks who make the famous dishes use these local ingredients with generations of experience. Here’s a video showing a “pasta granny” making marubini – stuffed pasta in the style of Cremona. The stuffing is made with cotechino (an uncooked sausage of a style made only in Cremona), breadcrumbs, and cheese from Parma (down the road). This cheese is obviously Parmesan, but it’s nothing like the pallid stuff you buy grated in shakers in the supermarket.

Seriously – when you want great regional Italian cooking, buy a plane ticket.

Sep 142016
 

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Today is the birthday (1909) of Sir Peter Markham Scott CH CBE DSC FRS FZS,  British ornithologist, conservationist, painter, naval officer, and sportsman. Scott was born in London, the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott http://www.bookofdaystales.com/robert-falcon-scott/ and sculptor Kathleen Bruce. He was only two years old when his father died. Robert Scott, in a last letter to his wife, advised her to “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games.” He was named after Sir Clements Markham, mentor of Scott’s polar expeditions, and his godfather was J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan http://www.bookofdaystales.com/j-m-barrie/

Scott was educated at Oundle School and Trinity College, Cambridge, initially reading Natural Sciences but graduating in the History of Art in 1931. He displayed a strong interest in painting, became known as a painter of wildlife, particularly birds. His wealthy background allowed him to follow his interests in art, wildlife, and many sports, including wildfowling, sailing and ice skating. He represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sailing in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the O-Jolle dinghy class.

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During the Second World War, Scott served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. As a Sub-Lieutenant, during the failed evacuation of the 51st Highland Division he was the British Naval officer sent ashore at Saint-Valery-en-Caux in the early hours of 11 June 1940 to evacuate some of the wounded. Then he served in destroyers in the North Atlantic but later moved to commanding the First (and only) Squadron of Steam Gun Boats against German E-boats in the English Channel. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery.

Scott is credited with designing the Western Approaches ship camouflage scheme, which disguised the look of ship superstructure. In July 1940, he managed to get the destroyer HMS Broke (D83) in which he was serving experimentally camouflaged, differently on the two sides. To starboard, the ship was painted blue-grey all over, but with white in naturally shadowed areas as countershading, following the ideas of Abbott Handerson Thayer from the First World War. To port, the ship was painted in “bright pale colours” to combine some disruption of shape with the ability to fade out during the night, again with shadowed areas painted white. However, he later wrote that compromise was fatal to camouflage, and that invisibility at night (by painting ships in white or other pale colors) had to be the sole objective. By May 1941, all ships in the Western Approaches (the North Atlantic) were ordered to be painted in Scott’s camouflage scheme. The scheme was said to be so effective that several British ships collided with each other. The effectiveness of Scott’s and Thayer’s ideas was demonstrated experimentally by the Leamington Camouflage Centre in 1941. Under a cloudy overcast sky, the tests showed that a white ship could approach six miles (9.6 km) closer than a black-painted ship before being seen. For this work he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

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He stood as a Conservative candidate unsuccessfully in the 1945 general election in Wembley North. In 1946, he founded the organization with which he was ever afterwards closely associated, the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) with its headquarters at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where he saved the nene or Hawaiian goose, from extinction in the 1950s, through a captive breeding program. In the years that followed, he led ornithological expeditions worldwide, and became a television personality, popularizing the study of wildfowl and wetlands.

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I’m not an especially avid fan of Scott. I watched a few of his television shows in the 1960s, but he seemed a bit too aristocratic and distant for my tastes. I was intrigued by the fact that he was Robert Scott’s son, though, and wondered whether that was what led to his fame. I think, in hindsight, that’s a bit harsh. His work on conservation, especially wildfowl and wetlands, is extremely important,  not least because he began it at a time when few were interested. The water meadows in Gloucestershire he preserved are some of the last remaining in Britain. They were once havens for biodiversity throughout the British Isles. By my eye his painting is sentimental and overrated as art. It was good for raising money for, and awareness of, conservation, however. Here’s a gallery:

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I’m awfully tempted to give a recipe for wild duck or goose, but will resist. You have to accept, though, that Scott came to conservation because he had been an avid hunter, not in spite of it. Many conservation efforts in Britain and the U.S. were promoted by hunters precisely because they experienced, first hand, the declining numbers of wildfowl. I’ve been a duck hunter myself, in the brackish sounds of North Carolina (not because I care for the sport, but because I was documenting the culture as an anthropologist). I too witnessed the plunging populations of ducks and geese over the course of the 1970s and ’80s. So, I’ll divert from meat to eggs.

Duck eggs are a rarity in the West, but in Asia they are as easy to find as chicken eggs (as are quail eggs). I probably ate duck eggs more often than chicken eggs in China. Basically you can do with duck eggs whatever you do with chicken eggs – fry, poach, boil, bake, scramble, etc. You can make omelets, soufflés, frittatas, cakes, or whatever you want. They are about the same size as a chicken egg and taste more or less the same – perhaps a bit richer, and the yolks can be more golden. Here’s a gallery to get you started.

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This website is great. http://www.greatbritishchefs.com/ingredients/duck-egg-recipes There is a heavy emphasis on asparagus and ham as accompaniments. So, for today I’ll go with a poached duck egg with fried ham and asparagus on toast. This can make a good first course. I often poach eggs instead of frying them, and have used them a lot in recipes here in this blog. But a quick scan shows that I have never given a recipe. People don’t poach eggs much these days. I guess they think it is more of a hassle than frying, though I don’t think it is. It just takes a little practice. Here’s a step by step.

Use a deep frying pan. Fill it with water and add a little salt and vinegar. The vinegar assists in keeping the white together as it cooks.

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Bring to a slow simmer.

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Crack an egg on to a plate or saucer. This step is not absolutely necessary, but I find it aids in getting the egg into the poaching water.

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Slide the egg gently into the water.

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Push the yolk  and white around a little (gently) whilst it cooks. You want to keep the white tight, and also keep the yolk off the bottom.

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Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and serve.

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The degree of doneness of the egg is your choice. I prefer the white cooked and the yolk runny. This takes about 3 minutes. If you want a harder yolk cook the egg longer.