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:

SALLET OF COLD CAPON ROSTED

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?

TO MAKE A CAKE

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

Ingredients

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
flour
1 tbsp butter (or olive oil)

Instructions

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.

Dickinson

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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.

 

Apr 292017
 

Coincidence Day again. Today is the birthday of Lonnie Donegan (1931), Rod McKuen (1933), and  Willie Nelson (1933). Now . . . let me say at the outset that I am not really a fan of any of them, but they all made waves in their own way, and each represents a strand of music that was popular in certain circles at one time or another.  I’ll go in chronological order, and apologize at the outset for brevity.

Lonnie Donegan, born Anthony James Donegan, is the only one of the three who I have listened to more than casually over the years, not because I like his music, but because there was a time in my life when the radio was relentless, playing “My Old Man’s a Dustman” or “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” over and over and over. The most important thing to remember about Donegan is that he virtually single handedly created a skiffle style based on recordings from the US, gave the style a (slightly) British flavor, and popularized it to the extent that tens of thousands of British teens wanted to play it. Out of this fad grew the British pop scene of the 1960s. Donegan was the lynch pin of a musical revolution.

Donegan started his musical career as a guitarist and banjo player for jazz bands in his teens. While in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a “skiffle” break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer’s brother, Bill, taking the name from the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s from the US (American skiffle was an obscure form of country blues). With accompanying music produced by a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan sang classic songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This music proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with “John Henry” on the B-side. The 1954 version was released as a Ken Colyer Jazzmen record, and Donegan got nothing for it but his session fee. So he released it again in 1956 under his own name. It proved to be a colossal hit. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the US.

It was the success of this single and the lack of the need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship that set off the British skiffle craze. There were a few bands that enjoyed chart success in the skiffle craze but Donegan remained the king of skiffle. The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots, amateur movement, particularly popular among working class teens, who could buy or make cheap instruments and use their music to rebel against the drab austerity of post-war Britain.

It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were between 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. A great many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle in this period, some becoming leading figures in their respective fields. How about Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Mick Jagger, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Ashley Hutchings, Roger Daltrey, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke to hit the tip of the iceberg? The Beatles developed  directly out of John Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarrymen. Here’s a bootleg recording of the Quarrymen singing a cover of Donegan’s “Putting on the Style” on the day in 1957 when Lennon met Paul McCartney. It was #1 on the English charts at the time.

The Beatles still retained elements of skiffle when they first burst on the scene in 1962. I don’t believe that Donegan is ever given enough credit for the revolution he started.

At completely the opposite end of the spectrum is Rod McKuen who, despite being one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s, has had zero influence on music and poetry as far as I can tell. There is a simple reason for this: it is worthless. How he became so popular is a complete mystery to me. Here is an early live version of “Seasons in the Sun” from the 1960s. It is a translation of the Jacques Brel song, “Le Moribond”.

“Seasons in the Sun” is probably McKuen’s best known song, and it has been covered innumerable times. I have no idea why. I’m sure it works well enough in French for a Belgian audience. When I lived for a while in France in 1966 I heard no end of this kind of stuff, and watched movies in the same vein. I suppose it’s cultural.

I’ll give McKuen enormous credit for making a success out of a life with disastrous beginnings. He was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California and never knew his biological father who left his mother before he was born. He was sexually and physically abused by relatives, and raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic. McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11 and drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey.

To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. After dropping out of Oakland Technical High School prior to graduating in 1951, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion, and over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton’s band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.

In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. McKuen began to translate Brel’s work into English, which led to the song “If You Go Away” – an international pop-standard – based on Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” In 1978, after hearing of Brel’s death, McKuen was quoted as saying,

As friends and as musical collaborators we had traveled, toured and written – together and apart – the events of our lives as if they were songs, and I guess they were. When news of Jacques’ death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn’t have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together.

In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen’s poems were translated into eleven languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone. McKuen said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton. McKuen has sold over 60 million books and his song titles have sold over 100 million records. I cannot fathom why. The best I can make out is that his poetry and lyrics are simple and sentimental, and this appeals to a segment of the population. I am fully in accord with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Julia Keller when she wrote that his work “drives many people crazy. They find it silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class”

The third of our trio, Willie Nelson, is the only one still alive. I’d say he sits somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of musical impact: not minor, not huge. He started out as a fairly conventional Country singer-songwriter, but over the years has become rather eclectic, but always with a Country bent.  He was born and grew up in Texas, left to be raised by his grandparents after his mother and father left with other partners. His grandparents taught him some music and bought him a guitar when he was 6, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age 7, and when he was 9, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summers, the family picked cotton but Nelson disliked the job, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky-tonks from age 13, and continuing through high school.

After high school Nelson bounced around for a while, and in 1956, went from Fort Worth, Texas first to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Vancouver, Washington, where he found a job on KVAN hosting the show The Western Express, and became popular locally, while still doing live performances. During this time he started writing “Family Bible”. His inspiration for the song came from his grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, who would sing “Rock of Ages” and read from the Bible after supper. Nelson played the demo of the song that he had recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine for Mae Boren Axton after interviewing her on the show. Impressed by his songwriting, Axton recommended that he go to Nashville and dedicate himself to songwriting full-time. Nelson quit the job at the radio station after being denied a raise in 1957, moving first to Houston and then on to Nashville, joining a long line of aspiring singer-songwriters.

In Houston he sold the rights to “Family Bible” for some quick cash, and it was recorded by Claude Gray in 1959 and released in 1960. It was a modest hit, and, even though Nelson was not credited as the writer, its success persuaded him to move to Nashville, where the song gained him some attention.

Through the first half of the 1960s Nelson had only modest successes. Then he signed with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ol’ Opry. Although a step up, and his records consisted registered in the Top 25, they always lingered in the low 20s. By 1972 his ranch had burnt down, he had divorced his second wife, and RCA Victor was complaining about the lack of real hits from his records. So he decided to quit the music business and start over. He moved to Austin, Texas, where the burgeoning hippie music scene revived his interest as a singer. His popularity in Austin soared as he played his own brand of country music marked by country, folk and jazz influences. He was transforming into the hippie cowboy.

Nelson signed Neil Reshen as his manager to negotiate with RCA, who got the label to agree to end his contract upon repayment of US$14,000. Reshen eventually signed Nelson to Atlantic Records for $25,000 per year, where he became the label’s first country artist. He formed his backing band, The Family, and by February 1973, he was recording his acclaimed Shotgun Willie at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Shotgun Willie was released in May 1973 and earned excellent reviews. But it did not sell well. The album led Nelson to a new style and he later stated that Shotgun Willie had “cleared his throat”. His next release, Phases and Stages, released in 1974, was a concept album about a couple’s divorce, inspired by his own experience. Side one of the record is from the viewpoint of the woman, and side two is from the viewpoint of the man. The album included the hit single “Bloody Mary Morning.” The same year, he produced and starred in the pilot episode of PBS’s Austin City Limits. From that point on emerged the “Outlaw Country” Willie Nelson we now know.

This trio of singers does not exactly inspire me in the kitchen, not least because their musical ranges and geographic backgrounds are so diverse. The only thing that really ties them together is that they were all making a mark in the early 1960s. Most of what I remember of early 60s party food is rather wretched – cubes of cheese or salami on toothpicks, shrimp cocktail, and the like.  I’ll go with Chicken à la King since it was very popular at the time, and is not desperate. It’s a common standby if you have leftover chicken. It was actually invented some time in the 1880s, and recipes were available in standard cookbooks in the early 20th century. But it became a defining dish in the 1960s. It’s really quick to make. This recipe is my modification from Betty Crocker – which seems appropriate. A cover of a 1960s classic, if you will.

Chicken à la King

Ingredients

3 ½ oz butter
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
3 oz mushrooms, sliced
½ cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 ½ cups light cream
1 ½ cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
3 oz cooked peas
scallions, sliced (for garnish)

Instructions

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bell pepper and mushrooms. Sauté until they have softened a little.  Add the flour and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to blend the flour with the butter and continue to sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the broth and cream, whisking to make sure that the flour is combined with the liquids. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens. Add the chicken and peas, and heat through. Serve over noodles or plain boiled rice, garnished with scallions.

 

 

 

Apr 232017
 

Today is the first Sunday after Easter, which goes by a wide variety of names depending on ecclesiastical tradition. In Catholic and some Eastern traditions it marks the end of Bright Week during which the resurrection of Jesus is constantly celebrated. In some of those traditions it is called Renewal Sunday, referring to the continual affirmation of the Easter message. It is also called Quasimodo Sunday in some denominations, especially in parts of France and Germany, the name being taken from the day’s introit: — “Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite” (“In the same way that newborn babies long for pure milk”).

In the early church, catechumens were baptized on the Eve of Easter, and on the Sunday following Easter they cast off their white baptismal robes – yet they were still spiritual newborns (needing spiritual milk). In the Anglican tradition it is commonly called Low Sunday which is how I referred to it in church bulletins when I was a pastor. No one knows quite what “Low” refers to – possibly the feeling that the feeling of the celebration of the resurrection is not as great as it was on Easter Sunday. Pastors in general suggest that it refers to church attendance on that Sunday, which is always very low.

In many churches today is called Thomas Sunday following a standard reading of the day John 20:19-31. Here’s the relevant part of the reading:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I always preached on this passage because there is much more to it than meets the casual reader. First there are a few simple things to elucidate. The name Thomas (Koine Greek: Θωμᾶς) given for the apostle in the Greek Bible is derived from the Aramaic or Syriac: ܬܐܘܡܐ‎ Toma, equivalent to the Hebrew Teom, meaning “twin.” The equivalent term for twin in Greek is Δίδυμος Didymos. So verse 24 is a gloss, not an extension of his name. That is, he was not known as Thomas Didymos, but simply Thomas. A better translation of the verse would be, “Now Thomas . . . which means ‘Twin’ . . .” Giving glosses for Aramaic terms in Greek is very common in the gospels. Verse 26 says that “eight days later” the apostles were gathered again. This uses a standard method of counting days in Aramaic whereby the first and last days are counted. So, Sunday to Sunday is eight days, not seven as we normally count in English.

The crux of the passage for me lies in verses 27 and 28, and, I believe, is mistakenly represented in classic iconography.  Jesus says “Put your finger here . . . etc.” in verse 27 but verse 28 does NOT begin, “So Thomas put his finger in the wounds, and believed . . .” Thomas IMMEDIATELY answers “My Lord and my God.” He not only believes without touching Jesus, but he goes on to assert that Jesus is both his Lord and is God, going beyond the obvious inference that Jesus died and has returned alive. The resurrection was miraculous enough, but one need go no farther than accepting it as proof that Jesus, AS A MAN (only), was killed by the Romans but the grave could not hold him. That’s quite extraordinary enough, and is enough for the other gospel writers. John’s gospel goes a step beyond that inference because of John’s author’s basic belief that Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, setting up the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, in this gospel, Thomas is the first apostle to get the whole story straight. In many traditions, therefore, he is not referred to as “doubting” Thomas, even though at the outset he doubts the testimony of his fellow apostles. Rather, he is seen as a man of extraordinary insight and faith because he goes well beyond what his senses tell him.

Thomas is traditionally believed to have sailed to India in 52 CE to spread the Christian faith, and is believed to have landed at the port of Muziris, (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor in modern-day Kerala state) where there was a Jewish community at the time.He is believed by the St Thomas Christian tradition to have established Ezharappallikal or Seven and Half Churches in Kerala. These churches are at Kodungallur, Palayoor, Kottakkavu (Paravur), Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kollam, and Thiruvithamcode (half church). The 4th century Syriac Christian poet and scholar St Ephrem wrote:

It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.

Thomas is mostly known as the missionary to India through the Acts of Thomas, an early 3rd century work of unknown provenance. The Acts of Thomas connects his Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but Jesus appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.” But the Apostle still demurred, so Jesus overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he put himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. Thomas’ ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.

According to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was asked to build a palace for the king. However, he decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (154–223) reports that in his time there were Christian groups in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it. But at least by the year of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India comprising Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity. The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadeva, one of the rulers of a 1st-century dynasty in southern India.

According to the most ancient tradition of the Mar Thoma (“Church of Thomas”) congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he was killed in Mylapore near Madras. According to local tradition, Thomas was killed at St.Thomas Mount, near Chennai, in 72 CE and his body was interred in Mylapore. Numerous churches in India claim to possess his relics, and these remains have been moved a number of times.

  

How much of all of this can be taken is legitimate history is open to question. It was certainly quite feasible for Thomas to travel to India, but whether he did or not is another matter. Churches in Cornwall in England claim that both Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea traveled to England (Joseph bringing the Holy Grail with him), but these tales stretch credulity to the breaking point. On the other hand, a trip from the Mediterranean to India was not only possible, but was a regular trade route by sea. The question remains what would have prompted Thomas to make such a trip. The canonical Acts of the Apostles, while not utterly reliable as history gives an account of early evangelizing that accords well with the letters of Paul, who knew the apostles. The narrative in Acts suggests that the apostles, who had been devout Temple-worshipping Jews, were content to remain in Judah and work on proselytizing at home to the Jews, showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews, whereas Paul, already an itinerant Hellenized Jew, took it as his mission to travel widely outside of Judah, preaching first to Hellenized Jews throughout the Roman empire, and then to Gentiles.  All parties seemed happy with this state of affairs. It, therefore, seems unlikely that Thomas broke ranks and journeyed to India. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries numerous Christian churches sprang up across Europe and Asia and many desired bona fides that they were founded by apostles. Actually, what is astounding to me is that Christianity took firm hold so early in India – certainly by the 2nd century – whether or not Thomas was involved.

Whether or not we can trust the histories, Thomas is most decidedly linked to the region of Kerala, so a local recipe is in order. Kerala is known as the “Land of Spices” because it traded spices with Europe as well as with many ancient civilizations for millennia, the oldest historical records being trade accounts with the Sumerians from around 3000 BCE. Kerala’s cuisine is quite distinctive in India because of the large numbers of both Muslims and Christians living alongside Hindus. Hindus emphasize vegetarian dishes as well as chicken and fish, but Kerala’s large Thomas Christian population has no food restrictions, so meat dishes in the local style are common as well.

Rice and tapioca are the staple foods of Kerala. All lunches and dinners focus on them and they are served with side dishes that can be meat, fish, vegetables, or a mix of all three.A favorite festive dish of Kerala’s Thomas Christians is a well-seasoned chicken stew in coconut milk with cashews. Lamb and duck can replace chicken in the recipe. Coconuts grow in abundance in the region, and both coconut milk and grated coconut flesh are common ingredients and thickeners. Using whole, fresh spices is more traditional than using powdered ones. Sometimes I crush them a little with a mortar and pestle before the cooking process to help release the flavors. In Kerala this would normally be one side dish among many, along with condiments.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Ingredients

1 ½ lb /750 gm chicken with bones (cut into medium size pieces)
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 carrot, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp thinly julienned, fresh ginger
1 tbsp thinly sliced, garlic
2 or 3 green chiles, cut lengthwise
3 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cardamoms
3 whole cloves
1” cinnamon
3 bay leaves
2 star anise
4 curry leaves
4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup thick coconut milk
2 ½ cups thin coconut milk
8 cashews
salt to taste
1 tbsp coconut oil

Instructions

Heat the coconut oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Add the cardamom, cloves, whole peppercorn, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves and sauté gently for 1 minute.  Add the sliced onion, ginger, garlic, green chiles and curry leaves and sauté until the onion is translucent. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ingredients to a heavy-bottom saucepan.

Add the chicken pieces, cubed carrots, potatoes, thin coconut milk and salt to taste to the saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the chicken is tender (about 40 minutes).

Meanwhile cover the cashews with hot water and let soak for about 30 minutes. Place them with the water and the thick coconut milk in a food processor or blender, and blend to a smooth paste.

When the chicken is cooked add the cashew and coconut milk paste to the pot, and simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes until the sauce has thickened a little.

Heat the coconut left in the skillet over medium-high heat, add the sliced shallots and curry leaves, and sauté until they are golden. Add them to the stew, simmer an extra minute then serve in a bowl along with plain boiled basmati rice and flat bread.

 

 

Aug 062016
 

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Today is the birthday (1809) of Alfred Tennyson FRS, poet laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and still one of the most popular of British poets. He was one of the mainstays of my poetry lessons as a teen in Australia – bulwark of empire and British phlegm. A number of phrases from Tennyson’s work have become commonplaces of the English language, including “Nature, red in tooth and claw” ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”, “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” . . . and so forth. However, I sympathize with W. H. Auden’s appraisal of Tennyson even if it is a bit harsh: “There was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.”

Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. He was born into a middle-class line of Tennysons, but also had a noble and royal ancestry. He and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens and a collection of poems by all three was published locally when Alfred was only 17. Tennyson was a student at Louth Grammar School for four years (1816–1820) and then attended Scaitcliffe School, Englefield Green and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. In the spring of 1831, Tennyson’s father died, requiring him to leave Cambridge before taking his degree. He returned to his father’s rectory, where he was permitted to live for another six years and shared responsibility for his widowed mother and the family.

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Although Tennyson and his family were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, they later moved to High Beach in Essex in 1837 until 1840. Tennyson then moved to London and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham. In 1842, while living modestly in London, Tennyson published the two volume Poems, of which the first included works already published and the second was made up almost entirely of new poems, which met with immediate success and secured his name.

In 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death and Samuel Rogers’ refusal, Tennyson was appointed to the position of poet laureate. He held the position until his death in 1892, the longest tenure of any laureate before or since. Tennyson fulfilled the requirements of this position by turning out appropriate but often uninspired verse, such as a poem of greeting to Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. In 1855, Tennyson produced one of his best-known works, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War.

Tennyson initially declined a baronetcy in 1865 and 1868 (when tendered by Disraeli), finally accepting a peerage in 1883 at Gladstone’s earnest solicitation. In 1884 Victoria created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson was the first person to be raised to a British peerage for his writing.

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Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Thomas Edison’s European agent, made sound recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, late in his life. They include recordings of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and excerpts from “The splendour falls” (from The Princess), “Come into the garden” (from Maud), “Ask me no more” “Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington” and “Lancelot and Elaine.” Here’s a video of one of his recordings. The animation is awful, as well as being distracting, but if you look away you can get a sense of the man and his poetry in vivo.

Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Though Prince Albert was largely responsible for Tennyson’s appointment as laureate, Queen Victoria became an ardent admirer of Tennyson’s work, writing in her diary that she was “much soothed & pleased” by reading “In Memoriam A.H.H.” after Albert’s death. The two met twice, first in April 1862, when Victoria wrote in her diary, “very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him.” Tennyson met her a second time nearly two decades later, and at that point the Queen told him what a comfort “In Memoriam A.H.H.” had been.

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With Tennyson being the quintessential Victorian it is no surprise that Isabella Beeton mentions him extravagantly:

But Tennyson has ventured beyond dates, and quinces, and syrups, which may be thought easy to be brought in by a poet. In his idyl of “Audley Court” he gives a most appetizing description of a pasty at a pic-nic:—

“There, on a slope of orchard, Francis laid
A damask napkin wrought with horse and hound;
Brought out a dusky loaf that smelt of home,
And, half cut down, a pasty costly made,
Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret, lay
Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
Imbedded and injellied.”

We gladly quote passages like these, to show how eating and drinking may be surrounded with poetical associations, and how man, using his privilege to turn any and every repast into a “feast of reason,” with a warm and plentiful “flow of soul,” may really count it as not the least of his legitimate prides, that he is “a dining animal.”

Tennyson’s poem leads us effortlessly to aspics (Imbedded and injellied), one of the great bulwarks of Victorian fine dining. First I give you Beeton’s basic recipe, which is perfectly serviceable to this day, although a considerable effort.

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Aspic, or Ornamental Savoury Jelly.

  1. INGREDIENTS. — 4 lbs. of knuckle of veal, 1 cow-heel, 3 or 4 slices of ham, any poultry trimmings, 2 carrots, 1 onion, 1 faggot of savoury herbs, 1 glass of sherry, 3 quarts of water; seasoning to taste of salt and whole white pepper; 3 eggs.

Mode. — Lay the ham on the bottom of a stewpan, cut up the veal and cow-heel into small pieces, and lay them on the ham; add the poultry trimmings, vegetables, herbs, sherry, and water, and let the whole simmer very gently for 4 hours, carefully taking away all scum that may rise to the surface; strain through a fine sieve, and pour into an earthen pan to get cold. Have ready a clean stewpan, put in the jelly, and be particular to leave the sediment behind, or it will not be clear. Add the whites of 3 eggs, with salt and pepper, to clarify; keep stirring over the fire, till the whole becomes very white; then draw it to the side, and let it stand till clear. When this is the case, strain it through a cloth or jelly-bag, and use it for moulding poultry, etc. Tarragon vinegar may be added to give an additional flavour.

Time. — Altogether 4–1/2 hours. Average cost for this quantity, 4s.

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Nowadays, the ready availability of commercial gelatin makes this laborious process unnecessary, but I have reproduced it from time to time because the flavor is unbeatable. Poultry or veal in aspic was a mainstay of the Victorian sideboard, as were luscious fruit jellies. They’re not popular any more, and the few times I have made them they’ve not been winners with my guests. They are simplicity itself, however, and worth experimenting with once in a while. I use a plain metal bowl, grease it lightly with clear oil, then put some decorative herbs in the bottom, pack it with cooked chicken, then pour in a good aspic to cover. It needs to chill in the refrigerator overnight. Then, when you are ready to serve, dip the bowl briefly in hot water, then place a plate over the bowl, invert it and give it a few sharp taps to unmold the aspic. With any luck it will come out clean. Serve the aspic sliced on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens.

Jul 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1805) of Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville  was a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian. He is best known for Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) but also noted for The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). Democracy in America was published after his travels in the United States, and is today often used as an early work of sociology and political science. De Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–48) and then during the Second Republic (1849–51) which succeeded the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s 2 December 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Alexis de Tocqueville came from an old Norman aristocratic family with ancestors who participated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His parents, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard of King Louis XVI, and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, barely escaped the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre in 1794. After an exile in England, they returned to France during the reign of Napoleon. Under the Bourbon Restoration, his father became a noble.

De Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830–1848), began his political career in 1839. From 1839 to 1851, he served as deputy of the Manche department (Valognes). In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe’s regime. De Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department’s conseil général between 1849 and 1851. According to one account, Tocqueville’s political position became untenable during this time in the sense that he was mistrusted by both the left and right, and was looking for an excuse to leave France.

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In 1831, he obtained from the July Monarchy a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in the United States, and proceeded there with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont. While de Tocqueville did visit some prisons, he also traveled widely in North America and took extensive notes about his observations and reflections. He returned within nine months, and published a report, but the real result of his tour was De la démocratie en Amerique, which appeared in 1835.

You cannot read de Tocqueville without marveling at his insight, but also being impressed with how relevant his observations are down to the present day. De Tocqueville wanted to know if there were any lessons to be learned from the “experiment” in the United States and applied to government in France. At home the old aristocratic order was fading and new democratic ideals were emerging, but the situation was confused and in constant flux. The grand themes of the French Revolution – liberty and equality – were of paramount importance to de Tocqueville, and he sought to understand them better and shed light on them in a deeper way than simply spouting them as slogans. What is liberty? What is equality? Are they always desirable? How can they be balanced? Key questions which he addressed with his probing mind, producing astonishing results.

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This blog is not in the business of advancing political causes, although I do make my views clear on occasion. I’m also not in the business of detailed analysis. Instead I’ll do as I often do; give you some salient quotes to ponder – these are all from Democracy in America [with my occasional comments in square brackets].

The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.

I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men . . .

There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.

“The will of the nation” is one of those expressions which have been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age.       

Useful undertakings which require sustained attention and vigorous precision in order to succeed often end up by being abandoned, for, in America . . . the people move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts.

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In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils it creates

A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. [Dubious – discuss !!]

It frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. [followers of Donald Trump take note]

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.

They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point. [Times change]

I am obliged to confess that I do not regard the abolition of slavery as a means of warding off the struggle of the two races in the Southern states. The Negroes may long remain slaves without complaining; but if they are once raised to the level of freemen, they will soon revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights; and as they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies. [Yes, de Tocqueville was a racist.]

No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims. All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.

The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.

There are at the present time two great nations in the world—I allude to the Russians and the Americans— All other nations seem to have nearly reached their national limits, and have only to maintain their power; these alone are proceeding—along a path to which no limit can be perceived. [Extraordinarily prescient]

In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it and he sells it before the roof is on. He plants a garden and rents it just as the trees are coming into bearing. He brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops. He embraces a profession and gives it up. He settles in a place which he soon afterward leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness.

In a letter from the U.S. de Tocqueville wrote:

At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far, this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride. It seeps through their politeness.

In my experience quantity over quality has long persisted in U.S. cuisine. When I first arrived in the U.S. I was staggered by the sheer size of portions offered at restaurants. In New York I was served a roast beef sandwich for lunch that had more meat in it than would have been eaten by a family of four in England for Sunday dinner, and I could not finish it. Half was more than enough. A great exemplar of U.S. cooking in the 19th century is The Cook’s Own Book: Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia: Comprehending All Valuable Receipts For Cooking Meat, Fish, And Fowl, And Composing Every Kind Of Soup, Gravy, Pastry, Preserves, Essences, &c. That Have Been Published Or Invented During The Last Twenty Years. Particularly The Very Best Of Those In The Cook’s Oracle, Cook’s Dictionary, And Other Systems Of Domestic Economy. With Numerous Original Receipts, And A Complete System of Confectionery  by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee from Boston.

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Here’s a curious recipe:

Pillau

Wash very clean two pounds of rice, stew it till perfectly tender with a little water, half a pound of butter, some salt, whole pepper, cloves and mace, and keep the stewpan closely covered; boil two fowls and one pound and half of bacon, put the bacon in the middle, and the fowls on each side, cover them all over with the rice, and garnish with hard-boiled eggs and fried whole onions.

Two pounds of rice, two chickens, and a pound and a half of bacon for how many people I wonder? Four maybe. I’m also interested to note the proportion of rice to meat. Pilau or Pilaf is immensely popular over a wide swathe of cultures from the Balkans and the Middle East to Central and South Asia. But in all these cultures the rice predominates. In this recipe the meat is the star and the rice floats around the edges. The recipe is very much in keeping with de Tocqueville’s general observations. The rice is very rich, with half a pound of butter for 2 pounds of rice, and quite spicy. The meat, on the other hand, is perfectly plain, but there’s plenty of it, no doubt garnished lavishly with the eggs and onions.

Jul 152016
 

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According to Roman historians (most notably, Livy), the first temple to Castor and Pollux in ancient Rome was dedicated on this day in 484 BCE. It was originally built in gratitude for victory at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini (Dioscuri), sons of Zeus/Jupiter and Leda were believed to have played a role in the battle. Their cult came to Rome from Greece via Magna Graecia and the Greek culture of Southern Italy.

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Both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus state the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), and his allies, the Latins, waged war on the infant Roman Republic some time around 496 BCE. Historical details are a bit cloudy and mixed with legend. Supposedly, Tarquin had been expelled as king in 509 BCE and a republic established. The battle of Lake Regillus was his last ditch effort to regain his throne. Before the battle, the Roman dictator Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis vowed to build a temple to the Dioscuri if the Republic were victorious. According to legend Castor and Pollux appeared on the battlefield as two able horsemen in aid of the Republic, and after the battle had been won they again appeared in the Forum in Rome watering their horses at the Spring of Juturna and announcing the victory. The temple was built on the supposed spot of their appearance. One of Postumius’ sons was elected duumvir (magistrate) in order to dedicate the temple on 15 July (the ides of July) 484 BC.

In Republican times the temple served as a meeting place for the Roman Senate, and from the middle of the 2nd century BCE the front of the podium served as a speaker’s platform. During the imperial period the temple housed the office for weights and measures, and was a depository for the state treasury.

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The archaic temple was completely reconstructed and enlarged in 117 BCE by Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus after his victory over the Dalmatians. Gaius Verres restored this second temple in 73 BCE. In 14 BCE a fire that ravaged major parts of the forum destroyed the temple, and Tiberius, the son of Augustus by a previous marriage of Livia and the eventual heir to the throne, rebuilt it. Tiberius’ temple was dedicated in 6 CE. The remains visible today are from the temple of Tiberius, except the podium, which is from the time of Metellus.

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The temple was probably already falling apart in the 4th century CE, when a wall in front of the Lacus Juturnae was erected from reused material. Nothing is known of its subsequent history, except that in the 15th century only three columns of its original structure were still standing. The street running by the building was called via Trium Columnarum (three columns street).

In 1760, the Conservatori, finding the columns in a state of imminent collapse, erected scaffolding to effect repairs. Both Piranesi and the young English architect George Dance the Younger were able to climb up and make accurate measurements. Dance reported to his father that he had “a Model cast from the finest Example of the Corinthian order perhaps in the whole World.”

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Today the podium survives without the facing, as do the three columns and a piece of the entablature, one of the most famous features in the Forum. Originally the temple had eight Corinthian columns (octastyle) at the short sides and eleven on the long sides. There was a single cella (inner chamber) paved with mosaics. The podium measures 32 m × 49.5 m (105 ft × 162 ft) and 7 m (23 ft) in height. The building was constructed in opus caementicium (Roman cement) and originally covered with slabs of tuff (volcanic ash rock) which were later removed. According to ancient sources, the temple had a single central stairway to access the podium, but excavations have identified two side stairs.

I could provide another Roman recipe to celebrate the day but the sources are from the late imperial period at best and so are not especially relevant to the cuisine of the early Republic. Instead, I thought I’d be a little more creative. Gemini (Castor and Pollux) is an astrological sign and, as such, people born under this sign have been assigned traditional qualities. Among these qualities, which tend to be reasonably well agreed upon, are food suggestions, which are, at best, fanciful, and range far and wide depending on who you read. This list is far from definitive, but appeals to me for purely aesthetic reasons:

Meat: Poultry

Fruits: Apricots, Pomegranates

Vegetables: Beans, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery

Nuts: Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Filberts, Pecans, Pistachios

Herbs & Spices: Anise, Cardamom, Chamomile, Chicory, Cinnamon, Citron, Cloves, Ginseng, Licorice, Maple, Nutmeg, Sage, Sarsaparilla, Sassafras, Saffron, Sesame, Spearmint, Thyme

There’s certainly plenty to choose from here. I decided to pick chicken and apricots as the main ingredient, flavored with thyme. If you wanted to spice it up a little you could use a mix of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and saffron instead. Almonds could also be added. Whatever you choose, I suggest adding balsamic vinegar to contrast with the sweetness of the apricots. Such a balance of sweet and sour accords with ancient Roman recipes (although they would have used liquamen) and is also in keeping with the oppositional duality of Gemini.

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©Apricot Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (3 lbs) cut in 8 pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
20 small apricots, halved and pitted
½ cup apricot preserves
1 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the chicken pieces to a golden brown on all sides. If necessary you can do this in batches.

Add the onion and balsamic vinegar to the chicken pieces and let the liquid reduce for about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, preserves, apricots, and thyme and stir to make sure everything is thoroughly mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer covered for 10 minutes, then uncover and let the sauce reduce. You can add a little cornstarch dissolved in water if the sauce is too thin, but reduction is a better option.

Serve with plain boiled white rice.

Jun 182016
 

Customs

Today is Mayor Making in Abingdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) when the residents and businesses of Ock Street (in the town center), and immediate environs, vote for the Mayor of Ock Street, a mock mayor who is thereafter the head of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers for the coming year. The ceremony nowadays takes place on the Saturday nearest 19th June each year, although in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was conducted near the annual Abingdon Midsummer Horse and Cattle Fair. The lineage of the dancers and the Mayor Making tradition is impossible to ascertain at this point due to the virtual non-existence of records prior to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a single entry in the parish records of 1560 for “two dossin of morris bells” and that’s about it until the 19th century. Not much to hang a history on.

I’ll try not to wear you out with my wonted diatribe about calendar customs in Britain, although in this case it is strongly tempting because I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing in England and was a member of Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers as musician and dancer in the 1970s. So I know a little bit about the tradition.

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The tradition of electing a mock mayor is sporadically recorded throughout English history but not much is known about the custom. It seems to be allied in a loose way with the widespread custom of electing a foolish version of officialdom in holiday seasons, but there’s no thread that unites these diverse customs. The Abingdon Mayor Making ceremony is recorded in the 19th century and seemingly has always been associated with the local morris dancers. A newspaper article from a Reading paper of 1864 notes that the “customary election of the mayor of Ock street” took place on Saturday 25th June with the horse and cattle fair following on the Monday. The general description is in the image above (click to enlarge) or go here: www.abingdonmorris.org.uk/mab144.htm  The general details are not very clear, however, and I doubt that 19th century reporters were any more accurate than modern ones are.

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Morris dancing in Abingdon suffered the same fate as morris dancing did in general in the late 19th century, that is, by 1900 there were a few groups clinging on in isolated spots, but most were defunct. A few antiquarians took an interest and noted down the dances and their music. Cecil Sharp was one of the more notable of these, but there were others before and after him. Sharp recorded the Abingdon dances from older performers, but was not particularly impressed because their dances did not fit what he saw as a canonical model, that is, each village had its own individual patterns of stepping, arm movements, and figures (which Sharp called “evolutions”), which were the same from dance to dance. What distinguished one dance from another were the tunes and the chorus movements that alternated with the figures. When Sharp interviewed the remaining Abingdon dancers, he discovered that their dances did not fit what he had by that time decided was the normal pattern and so dismissed them as defective.

By and large Abingdon dances are much simpler than the morris dances of other villages recorded in the region. They generally consist of an introduction followed by one figure and a chorus alternated until the leader calls for an ending movement. What has always marked the Abingdon tradition off from the others is its paraphernalia, and the Mayor Making ceremony. The dancers always perform with a set of horns which are reputed to date back to 1700. In that year William III granted a charter to the town, and in honor of the event they held a public ox roast. A fight broke out between the residents of Ock street and other townspeople over who should claim the horns, and Ock street won. Ever after, the winners and their descendants paraded the horns along Ock street during midsummer festivities.   The horns are mounted on a wooden replica of an ox head inscribed with the date, 1700. The mayor of Ock street carries a wooden cup and a sword as his badges of office during the Mayor Making procession. In 1864 these symbols had been hocked and had to be redeemed by the actual mayor of Abingdon before the election of the mock mayor could take place – which is presumably why the ceremony warranted a few lines in a Reading newspaper.

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The tradition of morris dancing and Mayor Making managed to survive through the 20th century with frequent breaks. In the 1930s the tradition was reasonably robust, but languished in the war years. In the 1950s and 60s it held on with some outside support and encouragement. Three of the oldsters from the 1930s — Charlie Brett, Jack Hyde, and Johnny Grimsdale (all born around 1900) — were recruited to revive the dances and act as continuity with the past. Charlie Brett was mayor from 1964 to his death in 1979, Johnny Grimsdale carried the horns, and Jack Hyde was an occasional musician (usually for practices).

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On the day before the election of the mayor, ballot cards are distributed to eligible voters along Ock street and its mews, and on the day itself a ballot box is set up in a designated spot from 10 am to 4 pm. A little after 4 pm the ballots are counted and the winner is proclaimed. Then around 6 pm a procession begins from one end of Ock street to the other. The basic idea is to parade from one pub to the next, so the itinerary has changed over the years. In the 1970s when I was a dancer it went from the Air Balloon to the Railway Inn (which was where we “practiced” – that is, drank all night and occasionally did a dance, and where we held meetings). Both are closed now, but there are still plenty of pubs to visit.

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The highlight of the parade is chairing the mayor. The dancers have a seat with long poles attached that the mayor sits in, and then he is hoisted to shoulder height and carried along Ock street.  It’s supposed to be an honor to be one of the bearers, but the times I did it, I thought it was just bloody hard work.

There are no special foods associated with either Abingdon or Mayor Making. It’s not a great foodie region of England. Jerome K. Jerome’s description of Abingdon in Three Men in a Boat  about sums the place up for me:

At Abingdon, the river passes by the streets.  Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order—quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull. 

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They do have a bun throwing in Abingdon once in a while to mark special occasions. They had one recently to mark the queen’s 90th birthday. The town council in full ceremonial regalia get on to the roof of the town hall and toss about 4,000 currant buns out to the crowds in the market square below. I went to one in 1974 that mourned the move of Abingdon from Berkshire to Oxfordshire when the county boundaries were redrawn. It’s some sight to see currant buns raining down on expectant thousands. It’s also quite a job catching one. As it happens 1974 was a banner year for Abingdon morris because Ali saw us that year.

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Anyway . . . pub food would work as a celebration. The dancers always had high tea during the ballot counting when I was a dancer. Just to bring home a point I made some time ago. “High” tea does NOT mean “afternoon tea” with scones, cream, jam and whatnot, as it is mistakenly called in the US. “High” does not mean “fancy.” What it means is that high tea is a regular meal as opposed to something you have to tide you over until dinner. Noon is the regular lunch time and dinner is served around 7 pm conventionally, so something in between is definitely handy. But in some families, tea is the evening meal, and consists of solid dishes. It is called high tea. High tea for us at Mayor Making consisted of cold meat, pickles, cheese, and bread – something easy to put together without cooking. These days the dancers have a pub lunch, and then a formal dinner after the ceremonies in the evening. There are no special dishes, however. You could have anything suitably English – steak and ale pie, steak and kidney pudding, ploughman’s lunch . . . stuff I’ve regaled you with many times before. Here’s a dish that I concocted that’s not especially traditional but is easy and tasty. The cider should be English country cider, that is, rich and alcoholic, not what passes for cider in the US.

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Chicken and Cider

Ingredients

1 chicken cut in 8 pieces
flour for dredging
salt and pepper
cooking oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
cider
chicken stock
fresh parsley, chopped
heavy cream (optional)

Instructions

Place the chicken pieces in a heavy brown paper bag with some flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Fold down the top of the bag tightly, making sure there is plenty of air inside, and shake it vigorously. Open the bag and remove the chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. This method ensures an even coating.

Heat the cooking oil over medium heat in a deep, heavy skillet. Gently sauté the onions and mushrooms until they are soft but not browned. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve them. Turn the heat to high and brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Return the mushrooms and onions, barely cover the chicken with a 50-50 mix of cider and stock, add parsley to taste, bring to a slow simmer and cook gently, partly covered for about 20 minutes.

Remove the cover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. DO NOT OVERCOOK. The sauce should have reduced and thickened. Towards the end you can add a little heavy cream if you wish.

Serve the chicken with the sauce over the top garnished with parsley and accompanied with boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable such as green beans or asparagus.

Serves 4