Mar 222018

On this date in 1638, following a number of civil and church proceedings against her, Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury; July 1591 – August 1643), a Puritan and a major player in the Antinomian Controversy which shook the infant Massachusetts Bay Colony, was formally banished from the Colony. Her strong religious convictions were at odds with the established Puritan clergy in the Boston area, and her popularity and charisma helped create a theological schism that threatened to destroy the Puritan community in New England.

Hutchinson was born in Alford in Lincolnshire in England, the daughter of Francis Marbury, an Anglican cleric and school teacher who gave Anne a superior education for the time. She lived in London as a young adult, and there married her old friend from home William Hutchinson. The couple moved back to Alford where they began following dynamic preacher John Cotton in the nearby port of Boston, Lincolnshire. Cotton was compelled to emigrate in 1633, and the Hutchinsons followed a year later with their 11 children and soon became well established in the growing settlement of Boston in New England. Anne was a midwife and used that position to convey her personal religious convictions to women in her care. Soon she was hosting women at her house weekly, providing commentary on recent sermons. These meetings became so popular that she began offering meetings for men as well, including the young governor of the colony Henry Vane.


She began to accuse the local ministers (except for Cotton and her husband’s brother-in-law John Wheelwright) of preaching a “covenant of works” rather than a “covenant of grace,” and many ministers began to complain about her increasingly blatant accusations, as well as certain theological teachings that did not accord with orthodox Puritan theology. The situation eventually erupted into what is commonly called the Antinomian Controversy. Hutchinson’s visits to women in childbirth led to discussions along the lines of the conventicles in England.

As the meetings continued, Hutchinson began offering her own religious views, stressing that only “an intuition of the Spirit” would lead to one’s election by God, and not good works. Her ideas that one’s outward behavior was not necessarily tied to the state of one’s soul became attractive to those who might have been more attached to their professions than to their religious state, such as merchants and craftsmen. The colony’s ministers became more aware of Hutchinson’s meetings, and they contended that such “unauthorised” religious gatherings might confuse the faithful. Hutchinson responded to this with a verse from Titus (2:3-4), saying that “the elder women should instruct the younger.”

Hutchinson’s gatherings were seen as unorthodox by some of the colony’s ministers, and differing religious opinions within the colony eventually became public debates. The resulting religious tension erupted into what has traditionally been called the Antinomian Controversy, but has more recently been labelled the Free Grace Controversy. The Reverend Zachariah Symmes had sailed to New England on the same ship as the Hutchinsons. In September 1634, he told another minister that he doubted Anne Hutchinson’s orthodoxy, based on questions that she asked him following his shipboard sermons. This issue delayed Hutchinson’s membership to the Boston church by a week, until a pastoral examination determined that she was sufficiently orthodox to join the church.

In 1635, a difficult situation arose when senior pastor John Wilson returned from a lengthy trip to England where he had been settling his affairs. Hutchinson was exposed to his teaching for the first time, and she immediately saw a big difference between her own doctrines and his. She found his emphasis on morality and his doctrine of “evidencing justification by sanctification” to be disagreeable. She told her followers that Wilson lacked “the seal of the Spirit.” Wilson’s theological views were in accord with all of the other ministers in the colony except for Cotton, who stressed “the inevitability of God’s will” (“free grace”) as opposed to preparation (works).


Hutchinson and her allies had become accustomed to Cotton’s doctrines, and they began disrupting Wilson’s sermons, even finding excuses to leave when Wilson got up to preach or pray. Thomas Shepard, the minister of Newtown (which later became Cambridge), began writing letters to Cotton as early as the spring of 1636. He expressed concern about Cotton’s preaching and about some of the unorthodox opinions found among his Boston parishioners. Shepard went even further when he began criticising the Boston opinions to his Newtown congregation during his sermons. In May 1636, the Bostonians received a new ally when the Reverend John Wheelwright arrived from England and immediately aligned himself with Cotton, Hutchinson, and other “free grace” advocates. Wheelwright had been a close neighbor of the Hutchinsons in Lincolnshire, and his wife was a sister of Hutchinson’s husband. Another boost for the free grace advocates came during the same month, when the young aristocrat Henry Vane was elected as the governor of the colony. Vane was a strong supporter of Hutchinson, but he also had his own ideas about theology that were considered not only unorthodox, but radical by some.


Hutchinson and the other free grace advocates continued to question the orthodox ministers in the colony. Wheelwright began preaching at Mount Wollaston, about ten miles south of the Boston meetinghouse, and his sermons began to answer Shepard’s criticisms with his own criticism of the covenant of works. This mounting “pulpit aggression” continued throughout the summer, along with the lack of respect shown Boston’s Reverend Wilson. Wilson endured these religious differences for several months before deciding that the affronts and errors were serious enough to require a response. He is the one who likely alerted magistrate John Winthrop, one of his parishioners, to take notice. On or shortly after 21 October 1636, Winthrop gave the first public warning of the problem that consumed him and the leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for much of the next two years. In his journal he wrote, “One Mrs. Hutchinson, a member of the church at Boston, a woman of a ready wit and a bold spirit, brought over with her two dangerous errors: 1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification.” He went on to elaborate these two points, and the Antinomian Controversy began with this journal entry.

On 25th October 1636, seven ministers gathered at the home of Cotton to confront the developing discord; they held a “private conference” which included Hutchinson and other lay leaders from the Boston church. Some agreement was reached, and Cotton “gave satisfaction to them [the other ministers], so as he agreed with them all in the point of sanctification, and so did Mr. Wheelwright; so as they all did hold, that sanctification did help to evidence justification.” Another issue was that some of the ministers had heard that Hutchinson had criticised them during her conventicles for preaching a covenant of works and said that they were not able ministers of the New Testament. Hutchinson responded to this only when prompted, and only to one or two ministers at a time. She believed that her response, which was largely coaxed from her, was private and confidential. A year later, her words were used against her in her 1637 trial, conviction, and banishment from the colony. This was followed by a March 1638 church trial in which she was excommunicated.

Hutchinson and many of her supporters established the settlement of Portsmouth with encouragement from Providence Plantations founder Roger Williams in what became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. After her husband’s death a few years later, threats of Massachusetts taking over Rhode Island compelled Hutchinson to move totally outside the reach of Boston into the lands of the Dutch. Five of her older surviving children remained in New England or in England, while she settled with her younger children near an ancient landmark called Split Rock in what later became The Bronx in New York City. Tensions were high at the time with the Siwanoy Indians. In August 1643, Hutchinson, six of her children, and other household members were massacred by Siwanoys during Kieft’s War. The only survivor was her 9-year-old daughter Susanna, who was taken captive.

Hutchinson is a key figure in the history of religious freedom in England’s American colonies and the history of women in ministry, challenging the authority of the ministers. She is honored by Massachusetts with a State House monument calling her a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” She has been called the most famous—or infamous—English woman in colonial American history.

She has since been celebrated in memorials, with a river and a highway (the Hutchinson River Parkway), named after her. I drove the “Hutch” on my daily commute to work for 25 years. By some weird coincidence my first real girlfriend was also named Anne Hutchinson. Yet another Anne Hutchinson wrote the main textbook on Labanotation (dance notation) in English, which I used all the time in my research. Clearly, she is haunting me.

The cooking in colonial North American colonies of the 17th century very closely followed that of the home countries of the colonists, with some substitution of ingredients. This fricassee recipe comes from The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675), and is a favorite of mine. Rabbit and chicken fricassee were undoubtedly popular dishes in the colonies, although more for special meals than daily cooking. The trick here is to use young, tender meats. Fricassees are not long-cooking stews. The meat, jointed, is simmered very quickly until just cooked, then the juice is replaced with butter and egg yolks to make a thick sauce along with some verjuice (which you can replace with white wine).

To make a Rare Fricacie.

Take Young Rabbits, Young Chickens, or a Rack of Lamb, being cut one Rib from another, and par-boyl either of these well in a Frying-pan with a little water and salt, then pour the water and salt from it, and Fry it with sweet Butter, and make sauce with three Yolks of Eggs beaten well, with six spoonfuls of Verjuice, and a little shred Parsley, with some sliced Nutmeg, and scalded Gooseberries; when it is fryed, pour in the sauce all over the Meat, and so let it thicken a little in the pan; then lay it in a Dish with the sauce, and serve it.


Feb 182018

Today is the birthday (1838) of Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach, Austrian physicist and philosopher. The ratio of an object’s speed to that of sound is named the Mach number in his honor. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and American pragmatism. Through his criticism of Newton’s theories of space and time, he foreshadowed Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Mach was born in Chrlice (German: Chirlitz) in Moravia (then in the Austrian empire, now part of Brno in the Czech Republic). His father, who had attended Charles University in Prague, acted as tutor to the noble Brethon family in Zlín in eastern Moravia. Up to the age of 14, Mach received his education at home from his parents. He then entered a Gymnasium in Kroměříž (German: Kremsier), where he studied for 3 years. In 1855 he became a student at the University of Vienna. There he studied physics and medical physiology, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1860 under Andreas von Ettingshausen with a thesis titled “Über elektrische Ladungen und Induktion”, and his habilitation the following year. His early work focused on the Doppler effect in optics and acoustics. In 1864 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Graz, having turned down the position of a chair in surgery at the University of Salzburg to do so, and in 1866 he was appointed as Professor of Physics. During that period, Mach continued his work in psycho-physics and in sensory perception. In 1867, he took the chair of Experimental Physics at the Charles University, Prague, where he stayed for 28 years before returning to Vienna.

Mach’s main contribution to physics involved his description and photographs of spark shock-waves and then ballistic shock-waves. He described how when a bullet or shell moved faster than the speed of sound, it created a compression of air in front of it. Using schlieren photography, he and his son Ludwig were able to photograph the shadows of the invisible shock waves. During the early 1890s Ludwig was able to invent an interferometer which allowed for much clearer photographs. But Mach also made many contributions to psychology and physiology, including his anticipation of gestalt phenomena, his discovery of the oblique effect and of Mach bands, an inhibition-influenced type of visual illusion, and especially his discovery of a non-acoustic function of the inner ear which helps control human balance.

One of the best-known of Mach’s ideas is the so-called “Mach principle,” the name given by Einstein to an imprecise hypothesis often credited to the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. The idea is that local inertial frames are determined by the large-scale distribution of matter, as exemplified by this anecdote:

You are standing in a field looking at the stars. Your arms are resting freely at your side, and you see that the distant stars are not moving. Now start spinning. The stars are whirling around you and your arms are pulled away from your body. Why should your arms be pulled away when the stars are whirling? Why should they be dangling freely when the stars don’t move?

Mach’s principle says that this is not a coincidence—that there is a physical law that relates the motion of the distant stars to the local inertial frame. If you see all the stars whirling around you, Mach suggests that there is some physical law which would make it so you would feel a centrifugal force. There are a number of rival formulations of the principle. It is often stated in vague ways, like “mass out there influences inertia here”. A very general statement of Mach’s principle is “local physical laws are determined by the large-scale structure of the universe.” This concept was a guiding factor in Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity. Einstein realized that the overall distribution of matter would determine the metric tensor, which tells you which frame is rotationally stationary

Mach also became well known for his philosophy developed in close interplay with his science. Mach defended a type of phenomenalism recognizing only sensations as real. This position seemed incompatible with the view of atoms and molecules as external, mind-independent things. He famously declared, after an 1897 lecture by Ludwig Boltzmann at the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna: “I don’t believe that atoms exist!” From about 1908 to 1911 Mach’s reluctance to acknowledge the reality of atoms was criticized by Max Planck as being incompatible with physics. Einstein’s 1905 demonstration that the statistical fluctuations of atoms allowed measurement of their existence without direct individuated sensory evidence marked a turning point in the acceptance of atomic theory. Some of Mach’s criticisms of Newton’s position on space and time influenced Einstein, but later Einstein realized that Mach was basically opposed to Newton’s philosophy and concluded that his physical criticism was not sound.

In 1898 Mach suffered from cardiac arrest and in 1901 retired from the University of Vienna and was appointed to the upper chamber of the Austrian parliament. On leaving Vienna in 1913 he moved to his son’s home in Vaterstetten, near Munich, where he continued writing and corresponding until his death in 1916, only one day after his 78th birthday.

Most of Mach’s initial studies in the field of experimental physics concentrated on the interference, diffraction, polarization and refraction of light in different media under external influences. From there followed important explorations in the field of supersonic fluid mechanics. Mach and physicist-photographer Peter Salcher presented their paper on this subject in 1887; it correctly describes the sound effects observed during the supersonic motion of a projectile. They deduced and experimentally confirmed the existence of a shock wave of conical shape, with the projectile at the apex. The ratio of the speed of a fluid to the local speed of sound vp/vs is now called the Mach number. It is a critical parameter in the description of high-speed fluid movement in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics.

From 1895 to 1901, Mach held a newly created chair for “the history and philosophy of the inductive sciences” at the University of Vienna. In his historico-philosophical studies, Mach developed a phenomenalistic philosophy of science which became influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. He originally saw scientific laws as summaries of experimental events, constructed for the purpose of making complex data comprehensible, but later emphasized mathematical functions as a more useful way to describe sensory appearances. Thus, scientific laws while somewhat idealized have more to do with describing sensations than with reality as it exists beyond sensations.

In accordance with empirio-critical philosophy, Mach opposed Ludwig Boltzmann and others who proposed an atomic theory of physics. Since one cannot observe things as small as atoms directly, and since no atomic model at the time was consistent, the atomic hypothesis seemed to Mach to be unwarranted, and perhaps not sufficiently “economical”. Mach had a direct influence on the Vienna Circle philosophers and the school of logical positivism in general.

According to Alexander Riegler, Ernst Mach’s work was a precursor to the influential perspective known as constructivism. Constructivism holds that all knowledge is constructed rather than received by the learner. He took an exceptionally non-dualist, phenomenological position. The founder of radical constructivism, von Glasersfeld, gave a nod to Mach as an ally.

In 1873, independently of each other Mach and the physiologist and physician Josef Breuer discovered how the sense of balance (i.e., the perception of the head’s imbalance) functions, tracing its management by information which the brain receives from the movement of a fluid in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. That the sense of balance depended on the three semicircular canals was discovered in 1870 by the physiologist Friedrich Goltz, but Goltz did not discover how the balance-sensing apparatus functioned. Mach devised a swivel chair to enable him to test his theories, and Floyd Ratliff has suggested that this experiment may have paved the way to Mach’s critique of a physical conception of absolute space and motion.

Mach’s home town of Brno is in Moravia which is now part of the Czech Republic, and much of the cuisine is common to the nation as a whole. But there are some distinctive dishes. Moravian chicken pie is one. It can be made as a simple two-crust pie, but is often made with a crumb topping as well, as in this recipe.

Moravian Chicken Pie


Pie Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3⁄4 cup shortening
6 -8 tbsp cold water


2 ½ cups chopped cooked chicken
salt and pepper
3 tbsp flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 -2 tbsp butter, cut in small pieces

Crumb Topping

¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp butter


For the pie crust: combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the shortening and pulse until the mixture is like coarse cornmeal. Gradually stir in cold water just until a dough forms. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Cover and chill 30 minutes, or until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C degrees.

Roll out one piece of dough to cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate and place in the plate. Roll out the second piece of dough for the top crust and set aside.

For the filling: combine all the ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the ingredients into the pie crust and top with the second crust, moisten the edges, and crimp to seal.

For the crumb topping: pulse the butter and flour in a food processor until it is like coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle the topping over the top crust of pie. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Bake the pie 45 minutes to 1 hour, until golden and bubbly.


Jan 052018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Tío Juan’s Wassail Chicken

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

Dec 282017

Today is the birthday (1903) of John von Neumann (born, Neumann János Lajos) legendary mathematician who could well lay claim to being the greatest mathematician of all time, if I were given to superlatives. He made major contributions to a number of fields, including pure mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics. Quite a mouthful. Next to von Neumann, the iconic genius, Einstein, who had an office down the hall from von Neumann at Princeton for many years, was second rate. Yet von Neumann tends to be forgotten in the popular mind these days, except perhaps indirectly when people refer to a “zero-sum game” which was a small part of the game theory he invented.

Writing something both interesting and useful – as well as being brief –  about von Neumann is a real challenge. I won’t say too much about his mathematical genius except to say that he was the rare person, indeed, who could see mathematical problems in their totality almost instantly, and could solve them almost as fast, because, unlike most other mathematical geniuses, he usually did not have to wade through calculations to find a solution, but could see the big picture with paths leading in and out intuitively. Such a mathematical mind does not come along very often.

Georg Pólya wrote that von Neumann was,

The only student of mine I was ever intimidated by. He was so quick. There was a seminar for advanced students in Zürich that I was teaching and von Neumann was in the class. I came to a certain theorem, and I said it is not proved and it may be difficult. Von Neumann didn’t say anything but after five minutes he raised his hand. When I called on him he went to the blackboard and proceeded to write down the proof. After that I was afraid of von Neumann.

I’m not sure whether I would include von Neumann on my list of people (alive or dead) I would like to have dinner with.  By all accounts he had a decent sense of humor, and was a good storyteller, but he could also be crudely insensitive, and tell off-color jokes without concern that he might offend.  His interest in women was strictly sexual, and the secretaries at Los Alamos had to put cardboard modesty screens on the front of their desks because he would quite blatantly ogle their legs when he was in the room even though he was a married man. I would go as far as to say that despite being an exceptionally intelligent man, he had little grasp of certain fundamental principles of living. In fact, he acknowledged as much on many occasions.  This famous quote may be the most telling:

If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.

An interesting quote to parse on many levels. There is no doubt that van Neumann found mathematics simple, even mathematical problems that stumped great minds. By comparison, he thought that life was much more complex, and, by implication, cannot be reduced to mathematical models. At one point he said:

There probably is a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.

Von Neumann took Pascal’s wager when he was near death and embraced Catholicism, while being overtly agnostic all his life (even though he was baptized in 1930 after his father’s death and before he married, for convenience only). Pascal argued that if death is the end, then you lose nothing by being a Christian. But if death leads to heaven or hell, it would be much better to die a Christian than not. Either way you win. The small trick here, which von Neumann apparently did not allow for, is that you have to be a believer, not just a Christian according to the letter of the law. Naturally he chose Catholicism for his church, presumably knowing that the Catholic church (overtly) places higher value on correct action over correct belief. This stance led to the Protestant Reformation, so, as an ordained Calvinist minister, you know what I think of von Neumann’s “conversion.” On the other hand, I don’t see it as a great sin.  If it brought him peace at the time of his death, it was worth it. As far as I am concerned, dogma, whether it be Catholic or Protestant, is worthless.

Von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos to a wealthy, acculturated and non-observant Jewish family. His Hebrew name was Yonah. Von Neumann was born in Budapest, then in the kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Neumann Miksa (English: Max Neumann) was a banker, who held a doctorate in law. He had moved to Budapest from Pécs at the end of the 1880s. In 1913, his father was elevated to the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Emperor Franz Joseph. The Neumann family thus acquired the hereditary appellation Margittai, meaning from Marghita (even though the family had no connection with the town). János became Margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Marghita), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann.

Von Neumann was a child prodigy. As a 6 year old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head, and, reputedly, could converse in ancient Greek. Formal schooling did not start in Hungary until the age of 10. Instead, governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. His father believed that knowledge of languages other than Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history, reading his way through Wilhelm Oncken’s 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen.

Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in 1911. This was one of the best schools in Budapest, part of a specialized education system designed for the elite. The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, that included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Dennis Gabor (b. 1900), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as Martians. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School. When asked why the Hungary of his generation had produced so many geniuses, Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, replied that von Neumann was the only genius.

Although his father insisted von Neumann attend school at the grade level appropriate to his age, he agreed to hire private tutors to give him advanced instruction in those areas in which he had displayed an aptitude. At the age of 15, he began to study advanced calculus under the renowned analyst Gábor Szegő. On their first meeting, Szegő was so astounded with the boy’s mathematical talent that he was brought to tears. By the age of 19, von Neumann had published two major mathematical papers, the second of which gave the modern definition of ordinal numbers, which superseded Georg Cantor’s definition. Von Neumann entered Pázmány Péter University in Budapest, as a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics in 1923, even though his father tried to steer him towards chemical engineering as a more profitable career. For his doctoral thesis, he chose to produce an axiomatization of Cantor’s set theory. He passed his final examinations for his Ph.D. in 1926 and then went to the University of Göttingen on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study mathematics under David Hilbert. He completed his habilitation on December 13, 1927, and he started his lectures as a privatdozent at the University of Berlin in 1928, being the youngest person (24 years old) ever elected privatdozent in its history in any subject. By the end of 1927, von Neumann had published 12 major papers in mathematics, and by the end of 1929, 32 papers, at a rate of nearly one major paper per month. In 1929, he briefly became a privatdozent at the University of Hamburg, where the prospects of becoming a tenured lecturer were better, but in October of that year a better offer presented itself when he was invited to Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1933, he was offered a lifetime professorship on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which is separate from the university, and had been founded 3 years earlier. He remained a mathematics professor there until his death.

Von Neumann’s personal values are pretty much an open book. He liked to eat and drink, and his second wife, Klara, said that “he could count everything except calories”. He enjoyed Yiddish and crude humor (especially limericks). He was a non-smoker. At Princeton he received complaints for regularly playing extremely loud German march music on his gramophone, which distracted those in neighboring offices, including Albert Einstein, from their work. Von Neumann did some of his best work in noisy, chaotic environments, and once admonished his wife for preparing a quiet study for him to work in. He never used it, preferring the couple’s living room with its television playing loudly. Despite being a notoriously bad driver, he nonetheless enjoyed driving—frequently while reading a book—occasioning numerous arrests, as well as accidents. When Cuthbert Hurd hired him as a consultant to IBM, Hurd often quietly paid the fines for his traffic tickets. Von Neumann once said,

I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path.

The paradox that intrigues me concerns his work on the Manhattan project. He was called in, for several weeks at a time, to help solve the problem of getting the fissionable material in a nuclear bomb to explode. Without von Neumann’s equations on implosion it is unlikely that the Manhattan project would have been successful, certainly not at the rate that it was. Without getting too technical the problem is fairly easy to state simplistically. To get fissionable material to set off an explosive chain reaction it has to be of a certain shape, mass, and density. Von Neumann worked on the concept of an explosive lens that, via conventional explosives, would cause the fissionable material to implode, forcing it into a compact spherical shape that would trigger a nuclear explosion.  As best as I can tell, von Neumann saw this as a technical problem, and was not particularly concerned about the lives that would be lost should the bomb be detonated. Indeed, he was present at several experimental explosions set off in the New Mexico desert, and it seems likely that his exposure to radioactive material is what caused the cancer that killed him.

After the war he became what many see as the prototype for Dr Strangelove in that he advocated stockpiling nuclear weapons in the arms race to create what he called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) between the Soviet Union and the United States. His reasoning was that MAD, through stockpiling weapons, would guarantee that they would not be used, rather than the opposite. No rational leader would initiate a first strike if the result would be not just the destruction of the other party, but one’s own destruction also. This reasoning is based, in part, on game theory (which he created), and assumes that the participants in the “game” are rational. That might have been true in von Neumann’s time, but I’m not sure about now. Not least, there are many more countries stockpiling nuclear weapons these days, so the “game” has become considerably more complex.

In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer. He was not able to accept the proximity of his own death very well, and he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation. Von Neumann reportedly said, “So long as there is the possibility of eternal damnation for nonbelievers it is more logical to be a believer at the end,” essentially saying that Pascal had a point. Father Strittmatter administered the last rites to him. On his deathbed, Von Neumann entertained his brother by reciting, by heart and word-for-word, the first few lines of each page of Goethe’s Faust. He died at age 53 on February 8, 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated.

Von Neumann’s wife noted: “He likes sweets and rich dishes, preferably with a good nourishing sauce, based on cream.  He loves Mexican food.  When he was stationed at Los Alamos… he would drive 120 miles to dine at a favorite Mexican restaurant.” This gives you a lot of options to celebrate the man, but I’ll go with pollo a la crema, a classic Mexican dish. You’ll need crema Mexicana, but if you cannot find it, use a mix of half and half heavy cream and sour cream. Crema Mexicana is a cultured cream with a sour, tangy taste, used in sauces.

Pollo a la Crema


1 tbsp olive oil
2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into strips
1 onion, peeled and sliced
½ cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
½ cup green pepper, seeded and cut into strips
½ tbsp Spanish paprika
½ cup rich chicken stock
1 cup crema Mexicana


Heat the olive oil in large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the chicken strips, peppers and onion until the chicken is cooked on the outside and the onions and peppers are soft. Add the cream, mushrooms, paprika and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, uncovered, and simmer for about 5 minutes, or the chicken is tender. Do not overcook. The sauce may be a little thin, but it should be creamy.

Serve hot immediately with refried beans, rice, and flour tortillas.

Nov 262017

On this date in 1942 the film Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York. It was a moderate box office success at first, but not stellar. It was not expected to be more than a run-of-the-mill wartime movie, rushed into release to take advantage of the publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca a few weeks earlier. It went on to win three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director (Curtiz), and Adapted Screenplay (the Epsteins and Koch) – and gradually its reputation grew. Its lead characters, memorable lines, and theme song have all become iconic and the film consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history. I saw Casablanca first in the early 1960s when old Hollywood black and white movies were the stock-in-trade of South Australian television because movies had to be at least 10 years old to be shown, and my parents (both Second World War veterans) would not have missed it for the world. My father anticipated and then cheered for the scene featuring the clash between Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” drowned out by the house band and patriots singing “La Marseillaise,” and my mother got a bit weepy during the finale. I had no idea what the movie was about at age 10, but the scenes stayed with me over the years, and I’ve seen it many times since. Taken out of context it isn’t such a great movie in my oh-so-humble opinion, but you really can’t take it out of context any more. People still quote classic lines when making a point, and clips from the movie itself show up in other movies – in When Harry Met Sally, for example.  Here’s that great iconic scene:

There are plenty of complete versions of Casablanca on YouTube if you need your fix.

The story for Casablanca was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights to the play in January 1942. Brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein were initially assigned to write the script. However, despite studio resistance, they left to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series early in 1942. Howard E. Koch was assigned to the screenplay until the Epsteins returned a month later. Principal photography began on May 25, 1942, ending on August 3. The film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California with the exception of that climactic sequence at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

The cinematography of Casablanca has been much commented on. The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a veteran who had previously shot The Maltese Falcon and Frankenstein. Particular attention was paid to photographing Bergman. She was shot mainly from her preferred left side, often with a softening gauze filter and with catch lights to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem “ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic.” Bars of shadow across the characters and in the background variously imply imprisonment, the crucifix, the symbol of the Free French Forces and emotional turmoil. Dark film noir and expressionist lighting was used in several scenes, particularly towards the end of the picture.

The music for Casablanca was written by Max Steiner, who was best known for the score for Gone with the Wind. The song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play. Steiner wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song, so Steiner based the entire score on it and “La Marseillaise,” transforming them as leitmotifs to reflect changing moods. Even though Steiner didn’t like “As Time Goes By”, he admitted in a 1943 interview that it “must have had something to attract so much attention.” The duel of the songs between Strasser and Laszlo at Rick’s café is, of course, a critical turning point in the plot. Originally, the opposing piece for this sequence was to be the “Horst Wessel Lied”, a Nazi anthem, but this was still under international copyright in non-Allied countries. Instead “Die Wacht am Rhein” was used. “Deutschlandlied”, the national anthem of Germany, features in the final scene, in which it gives way to “La Marseillaise” after Strasser is shot.

In 1942 Casablanca garnered decent reviews.  Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “The Warners … have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” He approved of the combination of “sentiment, humor and pathos with taut melodrama and bristling intrigue.” He also noted the film’s “devious convolutions of the plot,” and praised the quality of the screenplay and the performances of the cast.  Variety commended the film’s, combination of fine performances, engrossing story and neat direction” and the “variety of moods, action, suspense, comedy and drama that makes Casablanca an A-1 entry at the b.o. Film is splendid anti-Axis propaganda, particularly inasmuch as the propaganda is strictly a by-product of the principal action and contributes to it instead of getting in the way.” The review also applauded the performances of Bergman and Henreid and noted that “Bogart, as might be expected, is more at ease as the bitter and cynical operator of a joint than as a lover, but handles both assignments with superb finesse.” Other reviews were less enthusiastic. The New Yorker rated it only “pretty tolerable” and said it was “not quite up to Across the Pacific, Bogart’s last spyfest”.

In the 1,500-seat Hollywood Theater, the film grossed $255,000 over ten weeks. In its initial U.S. release, it was a substantial but not spectacular box-office success, taking in $3.7 million, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1943. By 1955, the film had brought in $6.8 million, making it the third most successful of Warners’ wartime movies (behind Shine On, Harvest Moon and This Is the Army). On April 21, 1957, the Brattle Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed the film as part of a season of old movies. It was so popular that it began a tradition of screening Casablanca during the week of final exams at Harvard University, which continues to the present day. Other colleges have since adopted the tradition. By 1977, Casablanca was the most frequently broadcast film on US television.

You might object to me saying that out of context Casablanca is not a great movie. Such judgments are personal, of course. It has the aura and mystique of the Golden Era of Hollywood which I don’t care for, and the characters are all stereotypes (archetypes if you want to Jungian), with some complexity, but no real development. Fortunately, Umberto Eco agrees with me. He wrote that “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca is a very mediocre film.” He viewed the changes the characters undergo as inconsistent rather than complex: “It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects.” He did add, however, that the use of multiple archetypes allows “the power of Narrative in its natural state without Art intervening to discipline it.” He also wrote that the movie reached “Homeric depths” and that was a “phenomenon worthy of awe.” A bit over the top towards the end there, but sums up my feelings (more or less).

Chicken Casablanca needs to be the dish of the day. There have been plenty of cocktails created to celebrate the movie if that’s your poison, but I’ll stick with chicken. This recipe uses ras el hanout as the primary flavoring, commonly used in Moroccan dishes. You’ll find recipes without it, but I hardly think they are worth considering. Ras el hanout plays a similar role in North African cuisine as garam masala does in Indian cuisine. The name is Arabic for “head of the shop” (similar to the English expression “top-shelf”) and implies a mixture of the best spices the seller has to offer.

As with garam masala, there is no definitive composition of spices that makes up ras el hanout. Each shop, company, or family may have their own blend. The mixture usually consists of over a dozen spices, in different proportions, although some purists insist that it must contain exactly 12 items. Commonly used ingredients include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and dry turmeric. Some spices may be particular to the region, such as ash berries, chufa, grains of paradise, orris root, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rosebud, fennel seed or aniseed, galangal, long pepper. Ingredients may be toasted before being ground or pounded in a mortar and mixed together. If you cannot find it locally you can get a version online.

Chicken Casablanca


2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1 onion, peeled and diced small
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 stalks celery, diced small
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 pint pureed butternut squash
1 cup chicken broth
2 tbsp ras el hanout
2 tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper
1 cup shelled fresh peas
⅓ cup raisins


Place the chicken broth and the squash puree in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking or burning. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and quickly brown the chicken breasts on both sides (in batches if necessary). Do not cook all the way through. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Reduce the heat under the pot to medium and add the onion. Sauté until lightly browned. Add the garlic and for another minute. Add the celery and carrot and sauté together for another 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low,  cover the pot, and leave the vegetable mixture to sweat for 10 minutes.

Pour the squash and chicken broth mixture over the vegetables in the pot, stir and bring to a slow simmer. Season the mixture with ras el hanout, cinnamon, and salt, and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and simmer for 40 minutes.

Cut the chicken breasts into chunks and add them to the pot. Stir in the peas and raisins and simmer for 15 minutes longer. You want the chicken to be cooked and juicy, but not overcooked.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Oct 302017

Today is supposedly the anniversary of the Banquet of Chestnuts (or Ballet of Chestnuts) which refers to a supper purportedly held in the Papal Palace by former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on 30th October 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard (it is titled Liber Notarum), but its accuracy is disputed. Burchard is cited as a primary source but no one believes that he was actually in attendance. Also, his account is written in language that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the diary entries, so it may be a later interpolation. Nonetheless, it’s an amusing story, even if fictional. Worth a tip of the hat and a recipe or two.

According to Burchard’s account, the banquet was given in Cesare’s apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests. Burchard describes the scene in his Diary:

. . . Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with “fifty honest prostitutes”, called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act [orgasm] most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrettes, and other things.

To begin with, this account was dismissed as highly improbable by many contemporaries. The Borgias were certainly not especially pleasant and upright people, but a lot of their bad press was based on propaganda circulated by enemies. That is, they were not above killing anyone who got in their way, but that was not especially unusual at the time. Machiavelli modeled The Prince in part on Cesare and was an admirer. I suppose that might be faint praise in some people’s eyes. You’ll find my thoughts on Cesare and Lucrezia here:

Although it may sound a little odd to modern ears, I think there is a great difference between bumping someone off because he is in the way, and having a lewd sex party. I will also (in limited fashion) defend pope Alexander against the worst accusations. Sure, he was openly sexually active as pope (and as cardinal before that), but those were the norms of the times. Celibacy for the clergy had been around for some time, but it was not taken as seriously then as it is now. Besides, Alexander was the first pope to openly acknowledge that he fathered his children, set them up well in life, and clearly was very devoted to them. Certainly, he favored his family in appointments and wealth as pope, but there was more than nepotism at stake. The Borgias were from Spain and their power in Italy was resented by noble Italian families, such as the Sforzas, who saw them as opportunistic interlopers and, as such, were always seeking ways to undercut them. Alexander’s favoritism towards his family was, therefore, as much protection against his enemies as it was paternal affection.  By the standards of most modern historians, Alexander is considered a shrewd and just diplomat and politician. From the outset he did a great deal to rid the clergy of the most evidently corrupt and self-serving appointees, for example.

So, is Burchard’s account of the banquet accurate? I seriously doubt it. Alexander was not Caligula.

Vatican researcher Right Reverend Monsignor Peter de Roo (1839–1926), rejected the story of the “fifty courtesans” as described in Louis Thuasne’s edition of Burchard’s diary (vol. 3). While granting that Cesare Borgia may have indeed given a feast at the Vatican, de Roo attempts, through exhaustive research, to refute the notion that the Borgias—certainly not the pope—could have possibly participated in “a scene truly bestial” such as Burchard describes, on grounds that it would be inconsistent with Alexander’s essentially decent, though much maligned, character, and that the majority of writers at the time either questioned the story or rejected it as outright falsehood. He also notes that the writing style is not consistent with Burchard’s other writing. De Roo concludes that a more credible explanation for the alleged “orgy” is that it is a later interpolation of events into Burchard’s diary by those hostile to Alexander:

To support the interpolated story, the enemies of pope Alexander VI bring forth of late other writers of the time. So does Thuasne produce Matarazzo, or the Chronicle ascribed to him. But Matarazzo essentially alters the tale, taking away its greatest odium, when he replaces Burchard’s courtesans and valets with ladies and gentlemen of the court. Thuasne also quotes Francis Pepi, who writes that it was Cesar de Borgia, not the Pontiff, who invited low harlots, and who cuts away the most abominable details, by saying that they passed the night in dancing and laughing, and by leaving out the presence of Lucretia de Borgia. The anonymous letter to Silvio Savelli is also mentioned to prop the report of Burchard’s diary. This letter, however, states only that the courtesans were invited to eat at the palace and offered a most shocking sight. It notices no further particulars nor the presence of any of the Borgias.

As always, to be scrupulously fair, de Roo is hardly a disinterested party in all of this. The Catholic church has spent a lot of time and energy cleaning up the history of the papacy. From the historical perspective I find this effort completely unnecessary. The times were what they were, and popes were what they were. But if your perspective is that the church embodies timeless and universal truths and moral values, it’s not possible to adopt that kind of relativistic view. I have no horse in this race, so I don’t care whether the banquet happened as described or not. I am disposed to think that it did not, because it seems out of place even for the times. I also accept the principle of oral transmission in which stories easily get embellished when passed by word of mouth. De Roo points out the possible confusion between the words for “courtier” and “courtesan,” and also that in the original telling of the story it was reported that some guests took off some of their clothes (because the room was hot) before they commenced dancing, and that this act, in itself, would have been notable. From there it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine enemies reporting the story going from removing an outer garment to dancing stark naked.

When I gave recipes for Lucrezia Borgia I used Libro de arte coquinaria (c. 1465) by Martino de Rossi, who is known to have been the head chef at the Vatican at the end of his career, so it is possible he was chef to Pope Alexander. Whether the banquet happened or not, and whether de Rossi was the chef or not, the recipes are quite suitable for the period and many can be recreated.  Here’s several for you to mull in the original and in my translation (with some notes).

Polpette di carne de vitello (veal roulade)

Per fare polpette di carne de vitello o de altra bona carne.

In prima togli de la carne magra de la cossa et tagliala in fette longhe et sottili et battile bene sopra un tagliero o tavola con la costa del coltello, et togli sale et finocchio pesto et ponilo sopra la ditta fetta di carne. Dapoi togli de petrosimolo, maiorana et de bon lardo et batti queste cose inseme con un poche de bone spetie, et distendile bene queste cose in la dicta fetta. Dapoi involtela inseme et polla nel speto accocere. Ma non la lassare troppo seccar al focho.

To make a roll of veal or other good meat

First, take some lean meat from the haunch and cut it into long slices and beat it on a cutting board or table using the knife handle. Take some salt and ground fennel seeds and spread over the cutlets. Then take some parsley, marjoram, and good lardo* and chop together with some good spices and spread this mixture over the cutlets. Roll them and cook them on a spit, but do not let them get too dry over the flame.  

* It is important to note that lardo is not lard, as it is normally translated. Lardo is specially prepared pork fat that some Italians eat raw in slices or with bread.

Roast chicken/pullet with orange juice

Per fare pollastro arrosto

Per fare pollastro arrosto si vuole cocere arrosto; et quando è cotto togli sucho di pomaranci, overo di bono agresto con acqua rosata, zuccharo et cannella, et mitti il pollastro in un piattello; et dapoi gettavi questa tal mescolanza di sopra et mandalo ad tavola.

How to prepare roast pullet

To prepare roast pullet you need good coals. When it is finished roasting, take some orange juice, or good verjuice mixed with rose water, sugar, and cinnamon. Put the pullet on a dish, dress it with the above mixture and send to the table.

[This recipe is rather simple, but if you wanted you could use the plain sauce as a marinade for chicken pieces before grilling them, or use it as a basting sauce when roasting the chicken.]

Chicken/Pullet sofftritto

Suffritto de Pollastri

In prima nectali molto bene e tagliali in quarto, o vero in pezzi piccholi, et poneli in una pignatta a frigere con buono lardo voltando spesse volte col cochiaro. Et quando la carne è quasi cotta getta fore la maiore parte del grasso de la pignatta. Et dapoi togli de bono agresto, doi rosci d’ova, un pocho pocho de bono brodo et de bone spetie, et meschole queste cose inseme con tanto zafrano che siano gialle et ponile in la dicta pignatta inseme co la carne et lascial bollire anchora un pocho tanto che tutte queste cose ti parano cotte. Dapoi togli un pocho pocho de petrosillo battuto menuto et ponilo insieme col ditto soffritto in un piattello et mandalo ad tavola. Et questo tale soffritto vole essere dolce o agro secundo il gusto comuno o del patrone.

Chicken Soffritto

First clean and quarter the chickens, or cut them into small pieces. Put them in a pan to fry with some good salted pork fat turning often with a spoon. When the meat is almost cooked discard most of the fat in the pan. Then take some good verjuice, two egg yolks, a little stock and some good spice, and mix all these with enough saffron to make it yellow. Put the mix in the pan with the meat and let it boil a little until it is cooked as you like. Then take a small amount of finely chopped parsley and add it to the soffrito and turn it on to a dish and send it to the table. This soffritto can be sweet or sour according to general tastes or according to the taste of your master.

[A version of this dish used to be one of my favorites. You’ll find it these days, occasionally, throughout Italy, Spain, and France.]


Sep 102017

Today is surmised to be the birthday (1659) of the English composer Henry Purcell although there are no official records concerning his birth. The date is conjectured based on circumstantial evidence, but I’ll go with it. In my humble opinion Purcell is the greatest English composer, and one of my favorites of all time.  He had a profound influence on Baroque music in what some musicologists consider an English style, and no other native-born English composer approached his fame until the likes of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten came along in the 20th century. Even so, I rank them as second rate in comparison with Purcell. I have published several of my researches on Purcell’s music and its influence, and have written two compositions using his music in them. Yup, I’m a fan.  I could say a lot about the man and his music but I’ll limit myself to some biographical details and comment on a small fraction of his work. Most importantly, historical details about his life and work are often shadowy because of a paucity of primary sources.

Purcell was born in St Ann’s Lane, Old Pye Street Westminster – the area of London later known as Devil’s Acre. His father, also Henry Purcell, whose older brother, Thomas Purcell, (d. 1682) was a musician, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and sang at the coronation of King Charles II. Henry the elder had three sons: Edward, Henry and Daniel. Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also a prolific composer who wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell’s death. Henry Purcell’s family lived just a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey from 1659 onwards.

After his father’s death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Thomas, who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas was himself a gentleman of His Majesty’s Chapel, and arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister. Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), Master of the Children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke’s successor. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, when he became assistant to the organ-builder John Hingston, who held the post of keeper of wind instruments to the king.

Purcell is said to have been composing at 9 years old, but the earliest work that can be certainly identified as his is an ode for the King’s birthday, written in 1670. (The dates for his compositions are often uncertain, despite considerable research.) It is assumed that he wrote the three-part song “Sweet tyranness, I now resign” as a child. After Humfrey’s death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr John Blow. He attended Westminster School and in 1676 was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s earliest anthem “Lord, who can tell” was composed in 1678. It is a psalm that is prescribed for Christmas Day and also to be read at morning prayer on the fourth day of the month.

In 1679, he wrote songs for John Playford’s Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues, and his music was an integral part of Playford’s Dancing Master through many editions of the work. This is one of the areas I know best and I have written about it extensively – I’ll try to be brief !!! One of my favorite Purcell tunes is this one used for Playford’s dance, “Hole in the Wall.” Here it is on period instruments:

Purcell also used it as one of his incidental musical pieces (#8 Hornpipe, Z 570) for a 1695 revival of Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge, an adaptation by Aphra Behn of a c. 1600 tragedy Lust’s Dominion. The lingering question, posed in part by rendition on period instruments, is how Purcell’s music sounded in his time. A lot is guesswork. Reconstructing the dances (my realm) is even greater guesswork. This is a version from the film, Becoming Jane, which I would take with a huge grain of salt to begin with. Period films have at least one obligatory dance scene, and in this case it is both completely anachronistic (100 years off), and unlikely to be any more than a whiff of the “real thing.”

I’ll make (minor) allowances for dramatic license. The smiling and flirting may well be legitimate; the bobbing up and down whilst walking through the dance is completely made up. We have not the slightest idea how they moved.

In 1679, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. However, during the early part of the year, probably before taking up his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the music for Nathaniel Lee’s Theodosius, and Thomas d’Urfey’s Virtuous Wife. Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays.[11] The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priest’s wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where the opera was performed. It is occasionally considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is usually given to Blow’s Venus and Adonis. As in Blow’s work, the action does not progress in spoken dialogue but in Italian-style recitative. At the time, Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been very popular in private circles. The composition of Dido and Aeneas gave Purcell his first chance to write a sustained musical setting of a dramatic text. It was his only opportunity to compose a work in which the music carried the entire drama.

Soon after Purcell’s marriage, in 1682, on the death of Edward Lowe, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. In 1685, he wrote two of his finest anthems, “I was glad” and “My heart is inditing,” for the coronation of King James II. He weathered the storms of the Glorious Revolution and became a favorite of Queen Mary II. In 1690 he composed a setting of a birthday ode for the queen Mary, “Arise, my muse” and 4 years later wrote one of his most elaborate and magnificent works: a setting for another birthday ode for the Queen, written by Nahum Tate, entitled “Come Ye Sons of Art.”

Purcell wrote the music for Mary’s funeral in 1695: a masterpiece that is still duly celebrated.

The initial march, in C minor, was written for a quartet of flatt trumpets (Baroque slide trumpets), which could play notes outside of the harmonic series and thus in a minor key. Thus the music was revolutionary for its time.  Stanley Kubrick reused it, reworked by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos for Moog synthesizer, as incidental music for A Clockwork Orange, and, as such, is well known in certain quarters.

Purcell died in 1695 at his home in Marsham Street, at the height of his career. He is believed to have been 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear: one speculation is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theater one night to find that his wife had locked him out. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music that he had composed for queen Mary’s funeral was performed during his as well.  Following his death, the officials at Westminster honored him by unanimously voting that he be buried with no expense in the north aisle of the Abbey. His epitaph reads: “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only His harmony can be exceeded.”

Recreating period recipes is fraught with difficulties similar to those in recreating period music and dance.  Here’s 2 from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, first printed in 1669. The first is seemingly easy to reproduce:


It is a good Sallet, to slice a cold Capon thin; mingle with it some Sibbolds, Lettice, Rocket and Tarragon sliced small. Season all with Pepper, Salt, Vinegar and Oyl, and sliced Limon. A little Origanum doth well with it.

The trick here is to figure out what “Sibbolds” are. I did a bit of head scratching, and when I looked online I found nothing at first other than an amateur effort at interpreting the recipe which called sibbolds “a leafy green” — which is nonsense. “Sibbolds” is clearly an alternate spelling of “sibboulets” – a diminutive of “sibol” or “cibol” (cognate with French ciboule), a perennial onion plant, Allium fistulosum, commonly called Welsh onion. Do your homework people !!!

This looks like a fairly modern recipe for chicken salad which you can replicate with little effort, although your ingredients will have to be modern varieties. As is usual with 17th century salads, what we now call “herbs” (tarragon and oregano) were chopped in with the lettuce and rocket (arugula) – which were also referred to as herbs in those days – rather than mixed with the oil and vinegar as in a French vinaigrette. The sliced lemon is a nice touch.

What do you make of this cake recipe?


Take eight wine quarts of flower; one pound of loaf Sugar beaten and searsed; one ounce of Mace, beat it very fine: then take thirty Eggs, fifteen whites, beat them well; then put to them a quart of new Ale-yest; beat them very well together, and strain them into your flower; then take a pint of Rose-water, wherein six grains of Ambergreece and Musk have been over night. Then take a pint and half of Cream or something more, and set it on the fire, and put into it four pounds and three quarters of Butter; And when it is all melted, take it off the fire and stir it about, until it be pretty cool; And pour all into your flower, and stir it up quick with your hands, like a lith pudding; Then dust a little flower over it, and let it stand covered with a Flannel, or other woollen cloth, a quarter of an hour before the fire, that it may rise; Then have ready twelve pounds of Currants very well washed and pick’d, that there may be neither stalks, nor broken Currants in them. Then let your Currants be very well dryed before the fire, and put warm into your Cake; then mingle them well together with your hands; then get a tin hoop that will contain that quantity, and butter it well, and put it upon two sheets of paper well buttered; so pour in your Cake, and so set it into the oven, being quick that it may be well soaked, but not to burn. It must bake above an hour and a quarter; near an hour and half. Take then a pound and half of double refined Sugar purely beaten and searsed; put into the whites of five Eggs; two or 3 spoonfuls of rose-water; keep it a beating all the time, that the Cake is a baking which will be two hours; Then draw your Cake out of the oven, and pick the dry Currants from the top of it, and so spread all that you have beaten over it, very smooth, and set it a little into the oven, that it may dry.

By my estimation you’d need a forklift to get it in the oven.  2 gallons of flour? 1 pound of sugar? 30 eggs plus 15 egg whites? Almost 5 pounds of butter? 12 pounds of currants?  . . .etc etc. And . . . you bake it in ONE tin for a little over 90 minutes (the instructions cannot decide whether it should be an hour and a quarter or 2 hours). The icing looks to be a version of what we now call royal icing. My strong suspicion is that Kenelm Digby, or his editor, never tried this recipe, and actually had no idea what he was talking about. If you examine the recipe closely enough you could make some reasonable simulacrum. It’s a version of yeast cake with currants.


Jun 082017

On this date in 793 Vikings sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne Island off the coast of Northumbria beginning a period of around 70 years when Norse warriors routinely pillaged monasteries along Britain’s and Ireland’s coastlines. Vikings had actually landed on Portland Isle, off the south coast of the kingdom of Wessex, in 789 and had killed the port’s reeve, but this event is not counted as a full blooded raid by historians.  Lindisfarne was; kicking off a series of Norse raids, that were not invasions because the Norsemen simply plundered and left.  This state of affairs changed in 866 when Viking troops conquered York and settled there, beginning a 200 year period of Norse control of various parts of Britain until Duke William of Normandy, himself a descendant of Vikings, moved into England and put a stop to further conquests from Scandinavia.

The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monk Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. The priory was founded before the end of 634 and Aidan remained there until his death in 651. The priory remained the only seat of a bishopric in Northumbria for nearly 30 years. Finian (bishop 651–661) built a timber church “suitable for a bishop’s seat.” Bede however was critical of the fact that the church was not built of stone but only of hewn oak thatched with reeds. A later bishop, Eadbert removed the thatch and covered both walls and roof in lead.

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704. Cuthbert was buried there, but his remains were later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century.

Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham. The saint’s shrine was the major pilgrimage center for much of the region until its destruction by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1539 or 1540. The grave was preserved however and when opened in 1827 yielded a number of remarkable artefacts dating back to Lindisfarne. The inner (of three) coffins was of incised wood, the only decorated wood to survive from the period. It shows Jesus surrounded by the Four Evangelists. Within the coffin was a pectoral cross, 2.5” across, made of gold and mounted with garnets and intricate tracery. There was a comb made of elephant ivory, a rare and expensive item in Northern England. Also inside was an embossed silver covered travelling altar. All were contemporary with the original burial on the island. When the body was placed in the shrine in 1104 other items were removed: a paten, scissors and a chalice of gold and onyx. Most remarkable of all was a gospel (known as the St Cuthbert Gospel or Stonyhurst Gospel from its association with the college). The manuscript is in an early, probably original, binding beautifully decorated with deeply embossed leather.

Following Finian’s death, Colman became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Up to this point the Northumbrian (and later Mercian) churches had looked to Lindisfarne as the mother church. There were significant liturgical and theological differences with the fledgling Roman party based at Canterbury. The Synod of Whitby in 663 changed this. Allegiance switched southwards to Canterbury and thence to Rome. Colman departed his see for Iona and Lindisfarne ceased to be of such major importance.

In 735 the northern ecclesiastical province of England was established with the archbishopric at York. There were only three bishops under York: Hexham, Lindisfarne and Whithorn whereas Canterbury had the twelve envisaged by St. Augustine. The Diocese of York encompassed roughly the modern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Hexham covered County Durham and the southern part of Northumberland up to the River Coquet and eastwards into the Pennines. Whithorn covered most of Dumfries and Galloway region west of Dumfries itself. The remainder, Cumbria, northern Northumbria, Lothian and much of the Kingdom of Strathclyde formed the diocese of Lindisfarne.


At some point in the early 8th century, the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Some time in the second half of the 10th century a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698–721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements that are outstanding. According to Aldred, Eadfrith’s successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding it and then it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith.

The 793 Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The D and E versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record:

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas  ligrescas, fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac mansliht.

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th [day before the] ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

The generally accepted date for the Viking raid on Lindisfarne is in fact 8 June. Historian Michael Swanton writes: “vi id Ianr, presumably [is] an error for vi id Iun (8 June) which is the date given by the Annals of Lindisfarne, when better sailing weather would favour coastal raids.”

Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court at the time, wrote:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

As the English became more settled inland they lost interest in defending the coastline. Many monasteries were established on islands, peninsulas, river mouths and cliffs because these isolated communities were less susceptible to interference and the politics of the heartland. This isolation and lack of defenses left the wealthy monastic communities completely open to and defenseless against raids from the sea.

The first Norse raids on the English northeastern coast, unsettling as they were, were not followed up. The main body of Norse raiders soon passed north around Scotland. The 9th century invasions came from the Danes from around the entrance to the Baltic. The first Danish raids into England were in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent during 835 and from there their influence spread north. During this period religious art continued to flourish on Lindisfarne.

The monks of Lindisfarne were legendary for their production of mead, a drink made from fermenting honey that has a long and storied history throughout Europe. You can get various styles of mead produced on Lindisfarne these days, but the recipe is a modern one.  No old recipes exist.  Let’s skirt that problem by making chicken in mead, a variant of chicken in wine or beer.

© Chicken in Mead


1 3-4 lb chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bottle mead
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 tbsp butter (or olive oil)


Dredge the chicken pieces in flour by placing about one-half cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste in a heavy brown paper bag along with the chicken pieces. Fold the top over tightly, leaving air in the bag.  Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then open the bag and remove the dredge chicken pieces to a rack.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and then add the chicken pieces, a few at a time, and sauté until golden on all sides.

If possible, make one layer of the golden chicken pieces in the skillet and cover with mead. Add the parsley, bring to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes. Uncover and turn the heat to high.  Let the mead reduce until it forms a thick glaze.  Turn the chicken pieces around in the glaze to cover and serve.

May 312017

Today is the start of Gawai Dayak, an annual festival celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. It is a public holiday in Sarawak and is both a religious and a social occasion initiated in 1957. Gawai Dayak was the concept of the radio producers Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, and taken up by the Dayak community. The British colonial government refused to recognize Dayak Day until 1962. Instead, they called it Sarawak Day to include all Sarawakians as a national day, regardless of ethnic origin. Gawai Dayak comes from “Gawai” meaning festival and “Dayak” a collective name for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the interior of Borneo. The population estimate is 2 to 4 million. The Dayaks, previously known as the Sea Dayak are mostly Iban people. Other ethnic groups such as the Bidayuh people (Land Dayak and Orang Ulu) are included. The Orang Ulu include the Kayans, Kenyahs and Lun Bawangs. There are over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups in the region. Although these peoples have common traits, each has its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture. Dayak languages are generally categorized as Austronesian languages. Originally Dayaks observed various forms of animism or pantheism, but since the 19th century times, many have converted to Islam or Christianity.

On 1 June 1963, Datuk Michael Buma, a Betong, hosted the celebrations of the first Gawai Dayak at his home at Siol Kandis, Kuching. On 25 September 1964, Sarawak Day was gazetted as a public holiday acknowledging the Sarawak part in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The holiday was first celebrated on 1 June 1965 and it became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. It is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking a bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or other endeavors ahead. The mode of celebration of Gawai Dayak varies greatly from place to place and preparations begin early.

In those villages were longhouses are the norm, the longhouse is cleaned, repaired and repainted through co-operation amongst its residents. Timber and wooden materials for repairs are obtained from nearby reserve forests (“pulau galau, pulau ban”) or purchased in towns. A “pantar” (long chair) may be built along the upper area of the ruai (gallery). The seat is raised and the tanju (verandah wall) is used as the back rest. Some old wooden longhouses (“rumah kayu”) are renovated with concrete and bricks to make a terraced structure (“rumah batu”). The inside walls of the longhouse are decorated with “ukir” murals portraying tree and wild animal motifs. Men with decorating skills make split bamboo designs. The Orang Ulu are famous for their colorful paintings of the tree of life on their house walls and their house posts are elaborately carved. Highly decorated shields are displayed near the family room door. Heirloom jars and old human skulls obtained during headhunting raids, if still kept, are cleaned and displayed. Deer horns may be secured on the longhouse posts in order to secure highly decorated swords and other household items.

In preparation people gather sago, aping, sawit or coconut palm shoots which are used for making soup. Vegetables such as wild miding fern, fiddlehead fern, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves and Dayak round brinjals from nearby jungle, farms or gardens are also gathered. After the gathering of plants and vegetables early in the morning, the poultry is slaughtered. Enough meat is cooked in aged thin-walled bamboo logs to make a traditional dish called “pansoh” (or “lulun” in the Iban language). The meat is first mixed with traditional herbs like lemon grass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Any remaining meat is preserved in salt. Animal heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Wooden cooking implements are made from small tree logs.

Some glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo logs to soak up the bamboo aroma. Normal rice will be cooked in pots at the kitchen hearth. The addition of pandan leaves gives a special aroma. Smoke from the fire wood also gives a distinctive aroma. Some Dayaks, especially Orang Ulu, will wrap rice in long green leaves before steaming it inside a pot. Rice may also cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker.

Highly decorated mats for guests to sit on are laid out on the longhouse gallery which runs the entire length of the building. The Dayaks make various types of traditional hand-woven mats. There are reed mats woven with colourful designs, lampit rattan mats, bidai tree bark mats and peradani mats. The walls of most family rooms and galleries are decorated with traditional blankets such as the woven Pua Kumbu and the tied cloth (kain kebat) blankets which are made with unique Dayak designs. During the festival, women are keen to display their skills and hard work at mat-making and hand-weaving. Some traditional baskets are also seen.

Men and women may wear “ngepan”, the traditional costume, especially when guests are arriving. The traditional dress of men is a loincloth (sirat or cawat), animal skin coat (gagong), peacock and hornbill feathers (lelanjang) headware, chains over the neck (marik), silver armlets and anklelets along with a shield, sword and spear. Men are decorated with tribal tattoos (kalingai or pantang in Iban) which signify their life experience and journey. A frog design on the front of the man’s neck and or tegulun designs on the backs of the hand indicate the wearer has chopped off a human head or killed a man in military combat. However, some designs are based on marine life which are meant for protection and rescue of the wearers when on the water.

Women wear a hand-woven cloth (kain betating) worn around the waist, a rattan and brass ring high corset around the upper body, selampai (a long piece of scalp) worn over the shoulders, a woven bead chain over the neck and shoulders (marik empang), a decorated high-comb (sugu tinggi) over the hair lump (sanggul), a silver belt (lampit), armlet, anklet and orb fruit purse.

Celebrations begin on the evening of 31 May with a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed (Muai Antu Rua). Two children or men, each dragging a winnowing basket (chapan) will pass by each family’s room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will then be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse. At dusk, a ritual offering ceremony (miring or bedara) will take place at every family room, one after the other. Before the ceremony, ritual music called gendang rayah is performed. Old ceramic plates, tabak (big brass chalices) or containers made of split bamboo skins (kelingkang) are offered to the deities.

The Iban Dayaks believe in seven deities: Sengalang Burong (the god of war which is represented by the brahminy kite in this world); Biku Bunsu Petara (the great priest’s second in command), Menjaya Manang (the first shaman and god of medicine), Sempulang Gana with Semerugah (the god of agriculture and land), Selampadai (the god of creation and procreativity), Ini Inee/Andan (the god of justice) and Anda Mara (the god of wealth). Iban Dayaks also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and some good helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast.

Offerings to the deities are placed at the four corners of each family room, in the kitchen, at the rice jar, in the gallery, the tanju and the farm. Other highly prized possessions such as precious old jars and modern items like rice milling engines, boat engines or a car may also be used as offerings. Any pengaroh (charm) will be brought out for this ceremony to ensure its continuous effectiveness and to avoid madness afflicting the owner. Wallets are placed among the offerings to increase the tuah or fortune of the owners.

Each set of offerings usually contains seven traditional items: the cigarette nipah leaves and tobacco, betel nut and sireh leaves, glutinous rice in a hand-woven leave container (senupat), rice cakes (tumpi), sungki (glutinous rice cooked in buwan leaves), glutinuous rice cooked in bamboo logs (asi pulut lulun), penganan iri (cakes of glutinous rice flour mixed with nipah sugar), ant nest cakes and moulded cakes, poprice (made from glutinous paddy grains heated in a wok or pot), hard-boiled chicken eggs and tuak rice wine poured over or contained in a small bamboo cup.

After all the offering sets are completed, the chief of the festival thanks the gods for a good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings (bebiau). The cockerel is sacrificed by slicing its neck. Its wing feathers are pulled out and brushed on to its bleeding neck after which each feather is placed as a sacrifice (genselan) on to each of the offering sets. The offerings are then placed at the designated locations.

When a longhouse agrees to host Gawai Dayak, they may need to plant extra paddy and organise labour (“bedurok”). Rice may be purchased from the towns if the festival is in a place where paddy farming is absent or insufficient. The traditional Dayak liquor is rice wine called tuak. It is brewed at least one month before the Gawai Dayak. The drink is brewed from the glutinous rice from a recent harvest mixed with home-made yeast. Traditionally, tuak was made with rice milk only but is now cut with sugar and water in a process called ciping. A stronger alcoholic beverage made by the Ibans is “langkau” (called arak tonok” (burnt spirit) by the bidayuhs). This drink is made by distilling tuak over a fire.

Traditional cake delicacies are prepared from glutinous rice flour mixed with sugar. The cakes include sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake) and kui sepit (twisted cake). The cakes can last well whilst kept inside a jar because they are deep-fried until hardened. Penganan iri (a discus-shaped cake) are made just prior to the festival day because they do not keep well. This is because the cake is lifted from the hot frying oil while not fully hardened. The sugar used can be the brown nipah sugar or cane sugar.

Before the eve of Gawai Dayak, the longhouse residents may organize a hunting or fishing trip to gather wild meats and fish. Both can be preserved with salt in a jar or smoked over a firewood platform above the hearth. Any wild animal parts like the horns, teeth and claws, and feathers are used to decorate and repair traditional costumes.

Contemporary city-dwelling Dayak who are Christian or Muslim hold a much more Western-style celebration, but it still involves traditional foods. Unless you have a wood fire, green bamboo stems, banana leaves and Sarawakan herbs and spices to hand, not to mention vegetables, I suggest taking an Indonesian trip if you want to sample Dayak food.  Here’s a video to give you an idea:

May 302017

How do you feel about voting for a man for president who had shot and killed a man in a duel? Well . . . on this date in 1806, Andrew Jackson, future 7th president of the United States, killed Charles Dickinson in a duel in Kentucky. They had nipped over the border because dueling was illegal in Tennessee. Jackson was severely wounded in the duel, and carried a bullet lodged in his lung the rest of his life because, at that time, surgery to remove it was too risky. There’s a fundamental difference between a real alpha male (Jackson) and a fake one (Trump), but I don’t care for either.

Andrew Jackson’s quick temper was notorious. One of his biographers wrote,

His audacity on behalf of the people earned him enemies who slandered him and defamed even his wife, Rachel. He dueled in her defense and his own, suffering grievous wounds that left him with bullet fragments lodged about his body.

However, most historians are of the general opinion that Jackson was usually (not always) in control of his rage, and used it (and his fearsome reputation) as a tool to get what he wanted in his public and private affairs. Certainly, his opponents were terrified of his temper:

Observers likened him to a volcano, and only the most intrepid or recklessly curious cared to see it erupt. …His close associates all had stories of his blood-curling oaths, his summoning of the Almighty to loose His wrath upon some miscreant, typically followed by his own vow to hang the villain or blow him to perdition. Given his record—in duels, brawls, mutiny trials, and summary hearings—listeners had to take his vows seriously.

On the last day of his presidency, Jackson said that he had but two regrets, that he “had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.” The ineluctable fact about such threats (unlike those of Trump), is that once in a while you have to actually kill someone to show that you are serious. In my opinion, therefore, Jackson’s duel with Dickinson was as much about proving he was ruthless, as about actual grievances – although in his mind they were real enough.

The Jackson-Dickinson duel had been developing over some time:

In 1805 a friend of Jackson’s deprecated the manner in which Captain Joseph Erwin had handled a bet with Jackson over a horse race. Erwin’s son-in-law, Charles Dickinson became enraged and started quarreling with Jackson’s friend which led to Jackson becoming involved. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a ‘coward and an equivocator.’ The affair continued, with more insults and misunderstandings, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806, calling Jackson a ‘worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward.’

Although the actual issue that led to the duel was a horse race between Andrew Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law, Joseph Erwin, Jackson had confronted Dickinson over a report that he had insulted his wife, Rachel. Dickinson said if he had, he was drunk at the time and apologized. Jackson accepted his apology, but there were probably still hard feelings between the two. Jackson and Erwin had scheduled their horse race in 1805. The stakes specified a winning pot of $2,000 paid by the loser, with an $800 forfeit if a horse couldn’t run. Erwin’s horse went lame, and after a minor disagreement about the type of forfeit payment, Erwin paid.

Later, one of Jackson’s friends, while sitting in a Nashville store, shared what was probably a more lurid story about Erwin’s disputed payment. When Dickinson heard the story, he sent a friend, Thomas Swann, to act as a go-between to inquire about what Jackson said about his father-in-law. Whether the friend misinterpreted or even misrepresented what was said by the two men. This minor misunderstanding flamed into a full-blown battle.


In a confrontation at Winn’s Tavern, Jackson struck Swann with his cane and called him a stupid meddler. Dickinson sent Jackson a letter calling him a coward about the same time that Swann wrote a column in a local newspaper calling Jackson a coward. Jackson responded in the same newspaper saying Swann was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard” – that is, Dickinson. That did it for Dickinson who, after he returned from New Orleans in May 1806, published an attack on Jackson in the local newspaper calling Jackson “a poltroon and a coward.” After reading the article, Jackson sent Dickinson a letter requesting “satisfaction due me for the insults offered.”

Because dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, the two men met in the Adairville, Kentucky, area, which sits right on the border, on May 30, 1806. Dickinson left Nashville the day before the duel with his second and a group of friends, confident, even demonstrating his shooting skills at various stops along the way. Since Dickinson was considered an expert shot, Jackson and his friend, Thomas Overton, determined it would be best to let Dickinson fire first, hoping that his aim might be spoiled in his quickness. The obvious weakness of this strategy was, of course, that Jackson might not be alive to take aim. Dickinson did fire first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Under the rules of dueling, Dickinson had to remain still as Jackson took his one shot. Jackson’s pistol stopped at half cock, so he drew back the hammer and aimed again, this time hitting Dickinson in the chest. Dickinson bled to death.

Doctors determined that the bullet in Jackson was too close to his heart to operate, so Jackson carried it for the rest of his life, and suffered much pain from the wound. Locals were outraged that Dickinson had to stand defenseless while Jackson re-cocked and shot him, even though it was acceptable behavior in a duel. Jackson could have shot in the air or shot only to injure Dickinson; this would have been considered sufficient satisfaction under dueling rules. Jackson said afterwards that Dickinson had meant to kill him, so he had also shot to kill. Jackson’s reputation did, however, suffer greatly in some quarters from the particulars of the duel. I suppose if you’ve just been shot in the lung and have a loaded pistol in your right hand, you don’t take a lot of time to ponder your choices, although you do beforehand and Jackson knew what he wanted to do. He considered himself the aggrieved party and killing Dickinson was his chief purpose. Dickinson had aimed at Jackson’s heart though the bullet had been slightly deflected by Jackson’s choice of loose clothing over his lean frame, and by his careful sideways stance. The bullet broke some of Jackson’s ribs, and had lodged inches from his heart. While Jackson could easily have fallen from such a wound, he said later, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”

Tennessee, Jackson’s actual home state despite the fact that the duel was in Kentucky, ought to be the site of today’s recipe. Tennessee produces wonderful BBQ, especially ribs, but I suggest that you save your pennies and pay a visit to sample it rather than try to replicate it at home. Tennessee pit masters have been honing their skills a long time. Chicken and dumplings is much more easily duplicated in your kitchen. Chicken and dumplings is actually a fairly widespread Southern dish, but Tennessee makes a fair go of it. Sadly, these days Southern cooks in general do not make their own dumplings, but buy what is, more or less, basic dried pasta which are labeled “dumplings.” Good old fashioned cooks, including those who taught me, fortunately, would never hear of such a thing. They make their own dumplings – which are somewhat akin to boiled short pastry – and therein lies the secret of a great dish. Chicken and dumplings is classic Southern comfort food; just what you need after being shot in the chest.

 Southern Chicken and Dumplings


3 cups chicken, cooked and shredded
chicken stock
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra
½ tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. salted butter, cubed
1 cup whole milk


Use a pastry blender or food processor (or your hands), blend together the flour and butter as you would for making short-crust pastry. Add in and mix the milk a little at a time until you have formed a soft, pliable dough. Knead for a few minutes and let it rest.

Bring about 2 pints of chicken stock to a gentle boil in a large pot. Add the chicken.

Liberally flour your work surface and roll out the dough to about the same thickness as thick noodles or a little thicker. Cut into 1” squares and dust with flour.

Bring the stock to a good rolling boil, but not too fierce, and add the dumplings. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Southern cooks like their dumplings very soft, but you will have to decide for yourself. Check for doneness after 15 minutes, and keep cooking until they reach the consistency you like. They should not be doughy, but Italian al dente is off the table. The extra flour on the dumplings will thicken the stock to a sauce.