Apr 072018

Today is the birthday (1506) of Francis Xavier, S.J. (born Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta) co-founder of the Society of Jesus, companion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and one of the first seven Jesuits who took vows of poverty and chastity at Montmartre, Paris in 1534. He led an extensive mission into Asia, mainly in the Portuguese empire of the time, and was influential in Christian evangelizing, most notably in India.

Xavier was born in the royal castle of Xavier, in the kingdom of Navarre. He was the youngest son of Juan de Jasso y Atondo, seneschal of Xavier castle, who came from a prosperous farming family and had received a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna, and later became privy counsellor and finance minister to King John III of Navarre (Jean d’Albret). Francis’s mother was Doña María de Azpilcueta y Aznárez, sole heiress of two noble Navarrese families. He was thus related to the great theologian and philosopher Martín de Azpilcueta.

In 1512, Ferdinand, king of Aragon and regent of Castile, invaded Navarre, initiating a war that lasted over 18 years. Three years later, Francis’ father died when Francis was only 9 years old. In 1516, Francis’ brothers participated in a failed Navarrese-French attempt to expel the Spanish invaders from the kingdom. The Spanish governor, cardinal Cisneros, confiscated the family lands, demolished the outer wall, the gates, and two towers of the family castle, and filled in the moat. In addition, the height of the keep was reduced by half. Only the family residence inside the castle was left. In 1525, Francis went to study in Paris at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, University of Paris, where he spent the next 11 years. In the early days he acquired some reputation as an athlete.

In 1529, Francis shared lodgings with his friend Pierre Favre. A new student, Ignatius of Loyola, came to room with them. At 38, Ignatius was much older than Pierre and Francis, who were both 23 at the time. Ignatius convinced Pierre to become a priest, but was unable convince Francis, who had aspirations of worldly advancement. At first Francis regarded the new lodger as a joke and was sarcastic about his efforts to convert students.  When Pierre left their lodgings to visit his family and Ignatius was alone with Francis, he was able to slowly break down Francis’ resistance. In 1530 Francis received the degree of Master of Arts, and afterwards taught Aristotelian philosophy at Beauvais College, University of Paris.

On 15 August 1534, seven students met in a crypt beneath the Church of Saint Denis (now Saint Pierre de Montmartre), in Montmartre outside Paris. They were Francis, Ignatius of Loyola, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laínez, Nicolás Bobadilla from Spain, Peter Faber from Savoy, and Simão Rodrigues from Portugal. They made private vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Pope, and also vowed to go to the Holy Land to convert Muslims. Francis began his study of theology in 1534 and was ordained on 24th June 1537. In 1539, after long discussions, Ignatius drew up a formula for a new religious order, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).  Ignatius’ plan for the order was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.

In 1540 king John III of Portugal had Pedro Mascarenhas, Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican, request Jesuit missionaries to spread the faith in his new Indian possessions, where the king believed that Christian values were eroding among the Portuguese. After successive appeals to the Pope asking for missionaries for the East Indies under the Padroado agreement, John III was encouraged by Diogo de Gouveia, rector of the Collège Sainte-Barbe, to recruit the newly graduated students who had established the Society of Jesus. Loyola promptly appointed Nicholas Bobadilla and Simão Rodrigues. At the last moment, however, Bobadilla became seriously ill. With some hesitance and uneasiness, Ignatius asked Francis to go in Bobadilla’s place. Thus, Xavier accidentally began his life as the first Jesuit missionary. Leaving Rome on 15th March 1540, in the Ambassador’s train, Francis took with him a breviary, a catechism, and De Institutione bene vivendi by Croatian humanist Marko Marulić, a Latin book that had become popular in the Counter-Reformation. According to a 1549 letter of F. Balthasar Gago in Goa, it was the only book that Francis read or studied. Francis reached Lisbon in June 1540 and four days after his arrival, he and Rodrigues were summoned to a private audience with the king and queen.

Xavier devoted much of his life to missions in Asia, mainly in four centers: Malacca, Amboina and Ternate, Japan, and China. His growing information about new places indicated to him that he should go to what he understood were centers of influence for the whole region. China loomed large from his days in India. Japan was particularly attractive because of its culture. For him, these areas were interconnected and could not be evangelized separately.

Xavier left Lisbon on 7th April 1541, his 35th birthday, along with two other Jesuits and the new viceroy Martim Afonso de Sousa, on board the Santiago. As he departed, he was given a brief from the pope appointing him apostolic nuncio to the East. From August until March 1542 he remained in Portuguese Mozambique, and arrived in Goa, then capital of Portuguese India on 6th May 1542. Following quickly on the great voyages of discovery, the Portuguese had established themselves at Goa 30 years earlier. Francis primary mission, as ordered by John III, was to restore Christianity among the Portuguese settlers. According to Teotonio R. DeSouza, recent critical accounts indicate that apart from the posted civil servants, “the great majority of those who were dispatched as ‘discoverers’ were the riff-raff of Portuguese society, picked up from Portuguese jails.” Nor did the soldiers, sailors, or merchants come to do missionary work, and Imperial policy permitted the outflow of disaffected nobility. Many of the arrivals formed liaisons with local women and adopted Indian culture. Missionaries often wrote against the “scandalous and undisciplined” behavior of their fellow Christians.

The Christian population had churches, clergy, and a bishop, but there were few preachers and no priests beyond the walls of Goa. Xavier decided that he must begin by instructing the Portuguese themselves, and gave much of his time to the teaching of children. The first five months he spent in preaching and ministering to the sick in the hospitals. After that, he walked through the streets ringing a bell to summon the children and servants to catechism. He was invited to head Saint Paul’s College, a pioneer seminary for the education of secular priests, which became the first Jesuit headquarters in Asia.

Xavier soon learned that along the Pearl Fishery Coast, which extends from Cape Comorin on the southern tip of India to the island of Mannar, off Ceylon (Sri Lanka), there was a group of clans called Paravas. Many of them had been baptized ten years before, merely to please the Portuguese, who had helped them against the Moors, but remained uninstructed in the faith. Accompanied by several native clerics from the seminary at Goa, he set sail for Cape Comorin in October 1542. He taught those who had already been baptized and preached to those who weren’t. His efforts with the high-caste Brahmins were unavailing.

He devoted almost 3 years to the work of preaching to the people of southern India and Ceylon, converting many. He built nearly 40 churches along the coast, including St. Stephen’s Church, Kombuthurai, mentioned in his letters dated 1544. During this time, he was able to visit the tomb of Thomas the Apostle in Mylapore (now part of Madras (Chennai) then in Portuguese India). He set his sights eastward in 1545 and planned a missionary journey to Makassar on the island of Celebes (in today’s Indonesia). As the first Jesuit in India, Francis had difficulty achieving much success in his missionary trips. His successors, such as de Nobili, Matteo Ricci, and Beschi, attempted to convert the noblemen first as a means to influence more people, while Xavier had initially interacted most with the lower classes (later though, in Japan, he changed tack by paying tribute to the Emperor and seeking an audience with him).

In the spring of 1545 Xavier started for Portuguese Malacca. He labored there for the last months of that year. About January 1546, he left Malacca for the Maluku Islands, where the Portuguese had some settlements. For a year and a half he preached the Gospel there. He went first to Ambon Island, where he stayed until mid-June. He then visited other Maluku Islands, including Ternate, Baranura, and Morotai. Shortly after Easter 1547, he returned to Ambon Island; a few months later he returned to Malacca.

In Malacca in December 1547, Xavier met a Japanese man named Anjirō. Anjirō had heard of Francis in 1545 and had travelled from Kagoshima to Malacca to meet him. Having been charged with murder, Anjirō had fled Japan. He told Francis extensively about his former life and the customs and culture of his homeland. Anjirō became the first Japanese Christian and adopted the name of ‘Paulo de Santa Fe’. He later helped Xavier as a mediator and interpreter for the mission to Japan that now seemed much more possible. In January 1548 Francis returned to Goa to attend to his responsibilities as superior of the mission there. The next 15 months were occupied with various journeys and administrative measures. He left Goa on 15 April 1549, stopped at Malacca, and visited Canton. He was accompanied by Anjiro, two other Japanese men, father Cosme de Torrès, and brother João Fernandes. He had taken with him presents for the “King of Japan” since he was intending to introduce himself as the Apostolic Nuncio.

Europeans had already come to Japan: the Portuguese had landed in 1543 on the island of Tanegashima, where they introduced the first firearms to Japan. From Amboina, he wrote to his companions in Europe: “I asked a Portuguese merchant, … who had been for many days in Anjirō’s country of Japan, to give me … some information on that land and its people from what he had seen and heard …. All the Portuguese merchants coming from Japan tell me that if I go there I shall do great service for God our Lord, more than with the pagans of India, for they are a very reasonable people.”

Xavier reached Japan on 27th July 1549, with Anjiro and three other Jesuits, but he was not permitted to enter any port his ship arrived at until 15 August, when he went ashore at Kagoshima, the principal port of Satsuma Province on the island of Kyūshū. As a representative of the Portuguese king, he was received in a friendly manner. Shimazu Takahisa (1514–1571), daimyō of Satsuma, gave a friendly reception to Francis on 29th September 1549, but in the following year he forbade the conversion of his subjects to Christianity under penalty of death. Christians in Kagoshima could not be given any catechism in the following years.

He was hosted by Anjirō’s family until October 1550. From October to December 1550, he resided in Yamaguchi. Shortly before Christmas, he left for Kyoto but failed to meet with the Emperor. He returned to Yamaguchi in March 1551, where he was permitted to preach by the daimyo of the province. However, lacking fluency in the Japanese language, he had to limit himself to reading aloud the translation of a catechism. Francis was the first Jesuit to go to Japan as a missionary. He brought with him paintings of the Madonna and the Madonna and Child. These paintings were used to help teach the Japanese about Christianity. There was a huge language barrier as Japanese was unlike other languages the missionaries had previously encountered. For a long time Francis struggled to learn the language.

Having learned that evangelical poverty did not have the appeal in Japan that it had in Europe and in India, he decided to change his approach. Hearing after a time that a Portuguese ship had arrived at a port in the province of Bungo in Kyushu and that the prince there would like to see him, Xavier now set out southward. The Jesuit, in a fine cassock, surplice, and stole, was attended by thirty gentlemen and as many servants, all in their best clothes. Five of them bore valuable articles on cushions, including a portrait of Our Lady and a pair of velvet slippers, these not gifts for the prince, but solemn offerings to Xavier, to impress the onlookers with his eminence. Handsomely dressed, with his companions acting as attendants, he presented himself before Oshindono, the ruler of Nagate, and as a representative of the great kingdom of Portugal offered him the letters and presents, a musical instrument, a watch, and other attractive objects which had been given him by the authorities in India for the emperor.

For 45 years the Jesuits were the only missionaries in Asia, but the Franciscans also began proselytising in Asia as well. Christian missionaries were later forced into exile, along with their assistants. Some were able to stay behind, however Christianity was then kept underground so as to not be persecuted. The Japanese people were not easily converted. Many of the people were Buddhist or Shinto, and did not find concepts such as Purgatory and Hell appealing, especially since Catholic faith confined their dead ancestors to Hell.

Xavier was welcomed by the Shingon monks since he used the word Dainichi for the Christian God, attempting to adapt the concept to local traditions. As Xavier learned more about the religious nuances of the word, he changed to Deusu from the Latin and Portuguese Deus. The monks later realized that Xavier was preaching a rival religion and grew more aggressive towards his attempts at conversion. With the passage of time, his sojourn in Japan could be considered somewhat fruitful in that he established churches in Hirado, Yamaguchi, and Bungo. Xavier worked for more than two years in Japan and saw his successor-Jesuits established. He then decided to return to India. Historians debate the exact path he returned by, but from evidence attributed to the captain of his ship, he may have travelled through Tanegeshima and Minato, and avoided Kagoshima because of the hostility of the daimyo.]During his trip, a tempest forced him to stop on an island near Guangzhou, China where he met Diogo Pereira, a rich merchant and an old friend from Cochin. Pereira showed him a letter from Portuguese prisoners in Guangzhou, asking for a Portuguese ambassador to speak to the Chinese Emperor on their behalf. Later during the voyage, he stopped at Malacca on 27th December 1551, and was back in Goa by January 1552.

On 17th April he set sail with Diogo Pereira on the Santa Cruz for China. He planned to introduce himself as Apostolic Nuncio and Pereira as ambassador of the king of Portugal. But then he realized that he had forgotten his testimonial letters as an Apostolic Nuncio. Back in Malacca, he was confronted by the capitão Álvaro de Ataíde da Gama who now had total control over the harbor. The capitão refused to recognize his title of Nuncio, asked Pereira to resign from his title of ambassador, named a new crew for the ship, and demanded the gifts for the Chinese Emperor be left in Malacca. In late August 1552, the Santa Cruz reached the Chinese island of Shangchuan, 14 km away from the southern coast of mainland China, near Taishan, Guangdong, 200 km south-west of what later became Hong Kong. At this time, he was accompanied only by a Jesuit student, Álvaro Ferreira, a Chinese man called António, and a Malabar servant called Christopher. Around mid-November he sent a letter saying that a man had agreed to take him to the mainland in exchange for a large sum of money. Having sent back Álvaro Ferreira, he remained alone with António. He died in Shangchuan from a fever on 3rd December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that would take him to mainland China. His relics are preserved in a number of shrines in Asia.

It may seem odd for me as an ordained Christian minister to express my disapproval of Xavier’s, or any missionary’s work, and I could get in trouble for doing so with my superiors. But I am going to do it anyway. The Catholic Church (and others) used conversion to Christianity as one of many vehicles of colonial subjugation of conquered peoples. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Americas. Asia, thank God (literally), was more resilient. Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto religions etc. were much more widespread than local religious traditions in other places, and were supported by rich and powerful rulers. These rulers knew quite well that stripping away centuries-old faiths that had been their own partners in control of the masses would weaken their control, and so they resisted mightily. I also disapprove because the foundation of Christianity is love, and if a Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim preaches love in the name of a religion that is not named Christianity, it amounts to the same thing, and should be left alone.

For Xavier I have chosen the Navarrese dish, porrusalda (literally, “leek broth”) for several reasons. First, it would have been well known to Xavier. Second, in basic form it is a Lenten dish bespeaking humility and simplicity, as befits a Jesuit. Third, I love leeks. It is really a form of leek and potato soup, but with some twists. The leeks should be the dominant flavor, and many other things can be added besides potatoes. Nowadays, carrots are a usual addition, as was pumpkin at one time. You can also add salt cod or meat – as you desire. It’s all up to you as long as the leek flavor predominates.  It is traditional to use water as the cooking liquid, but you can also use vegetable stock.



3 large leeks
400 gm peeled and diced potatoes
200 gm peeled and diced carrots
2 or 3 spring onions, sliced
olive oil


Sauté the onions and leeks in a little olive oil over medium heat in a heavy pot until they are soft. Add water (or broth) to cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and add the potatoes and carrots. Continue to simmer until the potatoes and carrots are cooked (another 15 minutes). Add more olive oil to taste and check the seasoning.

Some cooks mash the potatoes before serving to give the soup more body. You can also add a dollop of cream.

Mar 212018

Today is World Puppetry Day. The idea came from the puppet theater artist Javad Zolfaghari from Iran. In 2000 at the XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, (UNIMA) in Magdeburg, he put up the proposal for discussion. Two years later, at a meeting of the International Council of UNIMA in June 2002 in Atlanta, the date of the celebration was fixed. The first celebration was in 2003. The original focus for the day was marionette puppets, but it can easily be expanded to include the whole cascade of possibilities. These are a few that I have encountered and enjoyed.

A hand puppet (or glove puppet) is a puppet controlled by one hand, which occupies the interior of the puppet. The Punch and Judy puppets are familiar examples of hand puppets, and I have enjoyed them over the years. In fact a good friend of mine operated a Punch and Judy show as a sideline, and Tony Hancock’s Punch and Judy Man is stellar film concerning English class values. As a boy, I have to say that Harry Corbett and Sooty won out for me, though. I even had my own Sooty puppet. Akin to the hand puppet is the sock puppet, a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock. One of the best-known practitioners was Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop. Not my thing – sorry, Shari.

Marionettes, or “string puppets,” are suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either horizontal or vertical. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet.

A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets can form solid silhouettes or be decorated with various amounts of cut-out details. Color can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension and different effects can be achieved by moving the puppet (or light source) out of focus. Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit are what I know best. Shadow puppetry in Asia may have originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), but it became widespread, especially in SE Asia.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy is a puppet although they are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. I have loved these acts since childhood, and never tire of them.

Múa rối nước is a Vietnamese water puppet form, originally used in flooded rice paddies. Múa rối nước literally means “puppets that dance on water.” The tradition supposedly dates back to the 10th century. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of the puppets moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form.

The water also provides the setting for traditional stories depicting day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small traditional orchestra.

There are many more types of puppets, of course, and you probably have your own favorites. I was thinking of cooking lamb chops as the recipe of the day, but I expect Shari Lewis fans would not be amused. Instead, here is the Swedish chef from the Muppets making popcorn.

Dec 302017

Today is the birthday (159 CE) of Lady Bian, also known as Empress Dowager Bian, and formally known as Empress Wuxuan, empress dowager of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of China. She was the wife of Cao Cao, a warlord who rose to power in the late Eastern Han dynasty and laid the foundation of Wei. She gave birth to Cao Pi, who ended the Han Dynasty and founded Wei in 220 after his father’s death. Lady Bian is especially noted for her wisdom in action, as well as her kindness and humility at a time when rulers were cruel and ruthless.

Lady Bian was born in 159 in Bai Village (白亭), Qi Commandery (齊郡; in present-day Shandong) although her family was registered in Langya Commandery (琅琊郡; in present-day southeastern Shandong). Because her family was poor, she became a courtesan in a brothel when she was young. When she was 20, Cao Cao took her as a concubine.

In 189, when Cao Cao fled from Dong Zhuo at Luoyang, Yuan Shu spread rumours that Cao Cao had died. Lady Bian refused to believe them and persuaded Cao Cao’s followers not to desert him. When Cao Cao returned, he was impressed by her conduct. She had four sons by Cao Cao – Cao Pi, Cao Zhang, Cao Zhi and Cao Xiong. After the death of Cao Cao’s eldest son Cao Ang, Cao Cao’s wife Lady Ding  left him, never coming back even after he asked for forgiveness many times. Lady Ding was not actually Cao Ang’s biological mother; she had adopted him as her own. Cao Cao then made Lady Bian his principal wife. Lady Bian still treated Lady Ding kindly afterward, however. In 219 (after Cao Cao had been made the king of Wei in 216), Emperor Xian of Han made her the Queen of Wei. She was known for her wisdom and humility. She was particularly praised for refusing to celebrate lavishly (as her attendants had suggested) when her son Cao Pi was made heir in 217.

Cao Cao

After Cao Cao died in 220, Cao Pi inherited his title as the king of Wei, and later that year forced Emperor Xian to abdicate in his favor, ending the Han dynasty and establishing the state of Cao Wei. Queen Dowager Bian became empress dowager. She was not much involved in her son’s administration or in his campaigns against Cao Wei’s rival states, Eastern Wu and Shu Han. She, in particular, refused to grant her family excessive wealth or titles, setting an example for the rest of Cao Wei’s history. One incident that in which she engaged herself happened in 226, when Cao Pi wanted to execute Cao Cao’s cousin Cao Hong due to previous grudges between them. She, remembering the contributions that Cao Hong made – including one occasion when he personally saved Cao Cao’s life – rebuked Cao Pi sufficiently that he spared Cao Hong’s life, although Cao Hong’s offices and titles were still stripped from him.

Cao Pi

After Cao Pi died in 226, his son Cao Rui became emperor, and he honored his grandmother as grand empress dowager. In 227, she was inadvertently insulted by her granddaughter-in-law Princess Yu – Princess Yu had been Cao Rui’s wife when he was Prince of Pingyuan, but after he became emperor, he did not make her empress, but made his concubine Lady Mao as empress instead. She was upset, and Empress Dowager Bian tried to console her, and her response was, “the Caos have a tradition for favoring dishonorable women,” forgetting that Empress Dowager Bian was formerly a courtesan. Empress Dowager Bian was greatly offended, but did not punish her further than having her sent back to Cao Ruis’ princely manor house.

Empress Dowager Bian died in 230, and she was buried with honors due an empress dowager, with her husband Cao Cao. Lady Bian now appears from time to time in modern card games as well as in online RPGs.

The Qimin Yaoshu (齐民要术) is the most completely preserved of the ancient Chinese agricultural texts, and was written by the Northern Wei Dynasty official Jia Sixie. The book is believed to have been completed in the 2nd year of Wu Ding of Eastern Wei, 544 CE, while another account gives the completion between 533 and 544 CE. The text of the book is divided into ten volumes and 92 chapters, and records 1500-year-old Chinese agronomy, horticulture, afforestation, sericulture, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine, breeding, brewing, cooking, storage, as well as remedies for barren land. The book is not really in our time period but it quotes nearly 200 ancient sources including the Yiwu Zhi (written by Yang Fu (fl. 210s–230s), courtesy name Yishan, who was an official of the state of Cao Wei).  It also quotes agricultural books such as Fàn shèng zhī shū (氾勝之書) and Sì mín yuè lìng (四民月令) from the Hàn and Jìn Dynasties which are also now lost, providing some insight into farming and cooking in Lady Bian’s era. There are 280 recipes in the text.

This site, http://brewing.alecstory.org/2017/02/a-few-cooking-recipes.html gives both text and translation of some of the recipes which I will quote verbatim. The ancient Chinese is not easy to translate. Furthermore, the quantities given are obscure, although it should be noted that quantities are given, which was not true of recipes in the West of the period, or even later.

There are quantities here that I should explain before we dive in.


1 jin = 16 liang

 A reasonable guess of the weight in this period and locality in modern units is that 1 jin is 440 grams.
1 dan = 10 dou

1 dou = 10 sheng

1 sheng = 10 ge

A reasonable estimate of the volume in this period in modern units is that 1 dou is 3 liters.

臛法第七十六 Chapter 76: Methods for Stew and Broth.

《食經》作芋子酸臛法:To Make Taro Seed Sour Broth:

「豬羊肉各一斤,水一斗,煮令熟。 “One jin each of pork and sheep meat, one dou of water, boil until cooked.
成治芋子一升——別蒸之——蔥白一升,著肉中合煮,使熟。 One sheng of ripe taro seeds — separately steamed — one sheng of the whites of scallions, add it to the meat and boil together, until cooked.
粳米三合,鹽一合,豉汁一升,苦酒五合,口調其味,生薑十兩。得臛一斗。 Add three ge of polished non-glutinous rice, one ge of salt, one sheng of the juice from fermented beans, five ge of bitter wine, to taste.  Add ten liang fresh ginger [this is a ton of ginger, 30% ginger by weight in the recipe.  Maybe just one liang].  Yields one dou.”

There you go! Have at it.







Ernest Hemingway’s Favorite Hamburger Recipe

Sep 272017

On this date in 1777 Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States for one day, after the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia because it had been captured by the British. The revolutionary government then moved still farther away to York, Pennsylvania. I’ll give a few details about Lancaster (and other dribble) first, and then move to a more general discussion about capital cities.

Lancaster was originally called Hickory Town but the city was renamed after the English city of Lancaster by native John Wright. Its symbol, the red rose, was the symbol of the House of Lancaster. There’s a certain droll irony in both Lancaster and York being capitals of the nascent United States given that they were “capitals” of rival factions during the Wars of the Roses. The House of Lancaster was represented by the red rose and the House of York by the white rose – hence wars of roses. The word “capital” here is not strictly apposite. Lancaster and York in England are more correctly styled the “county seats” of Lancashire and Yorkshire, political and military centers for the ancient duchies of Lancaster and York.  Nowadays the reigning monarch is the claimant to the duchy of Lancaster, and the monarch’s 2nd son is given the title duke of York.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was part of the 1681 Penn’s Woods Charter of William Penn, and was laid out by James Hamilton in 1734. It was incorporated as a borough in 1742.  Things were looking grim for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1777. British forces under General William Howe had been advancing north from the Chesapeake Bay in an effort to capture Philadelphia, and forces led by George Washington had moved south of Philadelphia to intercept the invading force. On September 11, Washington’s men clashed with Howe’s troops in the Battle of Brandywine.

The battle was a catastrophe for the Continental Army. Howe outmaneuvered Washington, and the colonists had little choice but to retreat after the British appeared on their flank. Although Washington’s forces sporadically engaged the advancing British soldiers over the next two weeks, the loss at Brandywine effectively ended the chances of successfully defending Philadelphia. On September 26, 1777, the British marched unopposed into the city.

On hearing the news of the defeat at Brandywine the Second Continental Congress realized that it needed to find a new revolutionary capital post haste. The delegates packed up their gear and moved quickly the 60 miles west of Philadelphia to Lancaster. On September 27, 1777, just one day after the British strolled into Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in Lancaster’s county courthouse, a building that had been constructed in the town square in 1737. The Continental Congress got some work done that day, including electing Benjamin Franklin as commissioner to negotiate a treaty with France, but the delegates didn’t have much time to get comfortable.

The 60-mile buffer between Philadelphia and Lancaster seemed a bit thin given how easily the British troops had marched into Philadelphia, so they packed their bags and moved the additional 20 miles to York, where, in addition to the extra distance, the Susquehanna River made the site more defensible. The Second Continental Congress had a longer stay in York. The delegates met in York’s courthouse from September 30, 1777, all the way through June 27, 1778, at which time the congress moved back to Philadelphia.

The Articles of Confederation of the United States stipulate that the capital is the place where Congress meets.  Thus, there have been NINE capitals of the US:

Chronological Table of the Capitals

First Continental Congress

September 5, 1774 to October 24, 1774:
Philadelphia, Carpenter’s Hall

Second Continental Congress

May 10, 1775 to December 12, 1776:
Philadelphia, State House

December 20, 1776 to February 27, 1777:
Baltimore, Henry Fite’s House

March 4, 1777 to September 18, 1777:
Philadelphia, State House

September 27, 1777:
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Court House

September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778:
York, Pennsylvania, Court House

July 2, 1778 to March 1, 1781:
Philadelphia, College Hall, then State House

Congress under the Articles of Confederation

March 1, 1781 to June 21, 1783:
Philadelphia, State House

June 30, 1783 to November 4, 1783:
Princeton, New Jersey, “Prospect,” then Nassau Hall

November 26, 1783 to August 19, 1784:
Annapolis, Maryland, State House

November 1, 1784 to December 24, 1784:
Trenton, New Jersey, French Arms Tavern

January 11, 1785 to Autumn 1788:
New York, City Hall, then Fraunce’s Tavern

Congress under the Constitution

March 4, 1789 to August 12, 1790:
New York, Federal Hall

December 6, 1790 to May 14, 1800:
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County Building–Congress Hall

November 17, 1800 – present:
Washington, U.S. Capitol

We can get into a bit of quibbling match concerning whether the cities that housed Congress before the Articles of Confederation were “true” capitals, and purists often do. You can also argue whether or not the United States existed as a nation before the Treaty of Paris of 1783 which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized the independence of the nation from Britain. Nevertheless, a breakaway state can have a capital whether it is recognized by other nations or not. This, then, leads to a consideration of what constitutes a capital city.

Typically, a capital city (or simply capital) is the municipality exercising primary status in a country, state, province, or other administrative region, usually as its seat of government. A capital is most commonly a city that physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of its respective government; the status as capital is often designated by its law or constitution. In some jurisdictions, including several countries, the different branches of government are located in different settlements. In some cases, a distinction is made between the official (constitutional) capital and the seat of government, which is in another place. Capital cities that are both the centers of government and the prime economic, cultural, and intellectual centers of a nation or an empire are sometimes referred to as primate cities. Examples include Athens, Beijing, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Cairo, London, Mexico City, Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Warsaw.

The modern capital city has, however, not always existed. In the ancient and medieval world a migrating form of government, the itinerant court, was more common.  This manner of ruling a country is particularly strongly associated with German history, where the emergence of a capital city took an unusually long time. The German itinerant regime (“Reisekönigtum”) was, from the Frankish period and up to late medieval times, the usual form of royal or imperial government. The Holy Roman Emperors, in the Middle Ages and even later, did not rule from any permanent central residence. They constantly traveled, with their family and court, through the kingdom.

The Holy Roman Empire did not have even a rudimentary capital city; the emperor and other princes ruled by constantly changing their residence. Imperial dwelling-places were typically palaces built by the Crown, sometimes episcopal cities. The routes followed by the court during the journeys are usually called “itineraries”. Palaces were notably erected in accessible, fertile areas – surrounded by Crown mansions, where imperial rights to local resources existed. These princely estates were scattered around the whole country. The composition of the ruler’s retinue changed constantly, depending on what area the court was passing through, and which noblemen joined their master on the trip, or left him again.

During the course of a year, impressive distances were passed through. German historians calculate for example, on the basis of royal letters and charters, that Emperor Henry VI and his entourage in 1193 (between January 28 and December 20) traversed more than 4,000 kilometers – crisscrossing the entire German area. A reconstruction of destinations gives the following chronological route: Regensburg – Würzburg – Speyer – Hagenau – Straßburg – Hagenau – Boppard – Mosbach – Würzburg – Gelnhausen – Koblenz – Worms – Kaiserslautern – Worms – Haßloch – Straßburg – Kaiserslautern – Würzburg – Sinzig – Aachen – Kaiserswerth – Gelnhausen – Frankfurt am Main – and finally Gelnhausen again.

Nowadays there is a host of different possibilities for capital cities, as there has been in the past.  For example, having 2 capitals is not uncommon. Usually this means that one city is the official capital is one city but the national government meets in another. For example, in Chile Santiago is the official capital, site of many government offices but the national government meets in Valparaiso.  Some countries actually have no official capital cities. Neither Paris nor London are official capitals.

Then there are countries, such as Myanmar, where I live right now, that never seem to be able to make up their minds. In the past the capital was wherever the king wanted it to be. After independence from Britain it was Yangon (Rangoon). Right now the official capital is Naypyidaw but you’d never know it.  Yangon is the largest city as well as the hub of business, transport, and most of the judiciary and embassies. Naypyidaw was founded in 2002 and is still pretty much a wasteland. The real reason for the move is not known. Some say it was a vanity project of political strongman general Than Shwe. But also, Naypyidaw is more centrally located than Yangon. It is also a transportation hub located adjacent to the Shan, Kayah, and Kayin states which have been historically turbulent regions because of ethnic conflict, and some leaders felt that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability. The official explanation for moving the capital was that Yangon had become too congested and crowded with little room for future expansion of government offices.

Capital City, LLC, is a Washington DC founded in 2011 to produce some rocking down home foods. Their website is here, https://www.shopcapitalcity.com with plenty of recipes for you.  Their signature product is Mambo Sauce for chicken wings and other dishes.  The recipe for the sauce is a proprietary secret of course, but this is supposed to be close. It comes (slightly modified) from here https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/almost-capital-city-mumbo-sauce/13476/?utm_term=.275b9d725c25 Pure cane can be hard to find. Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup is acceptable and reasonably available in the US. Under no circumstances substitute Karo Light Corn Syrup as the original suggests.

Fake Capital City Mambo Sauce


1 cup ketchup
1 cup cane syrup
1 tbsp mild Hungarian paprika
3 tbsp hot sauce
¼ cup water
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
2 tbsp Gentleman Jack whiskey (optional)


Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir to blend well. Once the mixture comes to a steady boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cool and use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. Will keep for about 2 weeks.


Sep 122017

Today is another coincidence day.  On this date in 1634 a Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta on Malta accidentally blew up, killing 22 people and causing severe damage to a number of buildings. On this date in 1940 297,000 pounds of gunpowder blew up in a series of explosions at the Hercules Powder Factory of Kenvil, New Jersey, killing 51 workers and leveling a wide area. I guess that makes today a good day to talk about gunpowder.

There’s no doubt that gunpowder transformed the world and I’ve written about one aspect of this transformation: gunpowder put an end to fighting in heavy armor which, ironically, led to a glorification of the armor-clad knight in chivalric tales that were a nostalgic look back at a golden age that almost certainly never existed. All the tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, etc. are pure inventions of imagination with nothing whatsoever to do with historical reality. Seemingly people are constantly in search of an imaginary simpler and better world from the past – now out of reach. My academic interest, once upon of time, was with the invention of the Robin Hood legend which grew out of the same false nostalgia for a simpler age when a man of strong moral fibre, armed with only a bow and arrow (and occasionally sword or quarter staff) could right the wrongs of the world. Despite much historical wishful thinking, neither Robin Hood nor anyone like him ever existed. He is pure fiction emerging from the age of gunpowder in Europe.

There’s also a misguided belief, perpetrated by pseudo-historians, that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese for fireworks and other pleasures, but Europeans turned it into weapons of war.  Nope.  The Chinese used gunpowder in war for centuries as well as for fireworks. Gunpowder is now classed as one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the magnetic compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. These inventions were ascribed to Europeans in the Renaissance as evidence of their superiority over the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world, but now we know better. The Chinese got there first.

Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and propellant to be invented. Gunpowder is the first physical explosive and propellant. Before its invention, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire but they were not explosive. The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality. It was invented during the late Tang dynasty (9th century) but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century).

Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with the earliest written formula for it outside of China contained within the Opus Majus, a 1267 treatise by the English friar Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 12th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. While the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, other gunpowder weapons such as rockets continued to be used in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Bombs too never ceased to develop and continued to progress into the modern day as grenades, mines, and other explosive implements.

Rather than give you a long, dreary historical account, here’s a gallery of Chinese gunpowder weapons from the 12th and 13th centuries, consisting mostly of fire arrows (arrows with flaming gunpowder attached), hand-held cannons, and grenades.


Here then is a gallery of European gunpowder weapons, mostly cannons, showing that there was actually a fairly smooth evolution from China to Europe.

The two explosions that occurred on this date were both in munitions factories: a constant hazard in the manufacture of gunpowder. The thing about gunpowder is that the ingredients – charcoal, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and sulfur – are not especially harmful by themselves. They are particularly inflammable when combined but also not especially harmful, certainly not explosive, unless they are confined in a tight space. I’ve made gunpowder since I was a small boy just for the fun of seeing it fizzle and burn. When gunpowder is tightly confined, the copious hot gases that are produced when it burns are deadly as a propellant or an explosive. The exact mixture of the three ingredients is very important, and was the subject of experiments for centuries. For example, the saltpeter is necessary to produce oxygen for the burning of the sulfur and charcoal, but too much saltpeter reduces the explosive effect of the gunpowder (as does not enough). Munitions factories generally have their gunpowder packed tightly, so it’s important to be very careful near it. A careless spark can be fatal.

The Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta was built some time in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, replacing an earlier one in Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. It was located in the lower part of Valletta, close to the Slaves’ Prison. The explosion in 1641 damaged the nearby Jesuit church and college. The church’s façade was rebuilt in around 1647 by the architect Francesco Buonamici, while the damaged parts of the college were also rebuilt after the explosion.

The gunpowder factory was not rebuilt. In around 1667, a new factory was constructed in Floriana, far away from any residential areas. This factory was incorporated into the Ospizio complex in the early 18th century

The explosion at the Hercules Powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey in 1941 leveled over 20 buildings. The explosions shook the area so forcefully that cars were bounced off the roads, most windows in homes miles away were broken and articles flew off shelves and walls. The explosions were felt as far away as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and were picked up by the seismograph at Fordham University in New York, about 50 miles east of Kenvil. Not only were windows broken, but telephone wires were torn apart from their poles. Many windows in both Roxbury and Wharton high schools were shattered.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new.  Was the explosion an industrial accident or Nazi sabotage ?????? I don’t know enough about the event to draw an educated conclusion, but my money is on it being an accident. In war time fears are heightened, and it’s an easy cop-out to blame the enemy for catastrophic events rather than take responsibility yourself. The latter takes more spine than most people possess.

For a recipe I could go two ways, and I will take both paths.  There are actual recipes that use gunpowder. I imagine that they’re pretty unsavory (because of the sulfur), but they do exist. In fact sulfur does have various culinary uses. I used to be able to buy it in bulk for my home chemistry experiments from the grocery in South Australia as a boy in the early 1960s. Sulfur is actually a critical nutrient, found particularly in strong onions, to aid in vitamin D absorption and in the correct glucose metabolism. There are records of soldiers through history using gunpowder to add taste to field rations when they had no salt. But there’s also this one from the Old Foodie found here — http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2011/11/gunpowder-in-kitchen.html

Tongues, to cure. No. 1.

Take two fine bullocks’ tongues; wash them well in spring water; dry them thoroughly with a cloth, and salt them with common salt, a quarter of a pound of saltpetre, a quarter of a pound of treacle, and a quarter of a pound of gunpowder. Let them lie in this pickle for a month; turn and rub them every day; then take them out and dry them with a cloth; rub a little gunpowder over them, and hang them up for a month, when they will be fit to eat, previously soaking a few hours as customary.

The lady’s own cookery book, and new dinner-table director (1844) by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury

Try it at your peril. Actually, I don’t suppose it’s all that bad.

Then there’s ingredients or dishes called “gunpowder” because they resemble it.  There is Chinese gunpowder tea of course.  In Chinese it’s called 珠茶(zhū chá), literally “pearl tea.” Each leaf is rolled into a small round pellet which English colonists thought resembled grains of gunpowder. This rolling method of shaping tea is most often applied either to dried green tea (the most commonly encountered variety outside China) or oolong tea.

I’ll go with a south Indian dish which is called gunpowder in English, also known as chutney podi, a ground, powdered mix of toasted urad dal, chana dal, toor dal, grated coconut, dried red chiles,curry leaves, tamarind, jaggery, and salt, which can also be seasoned with mustard seeds, turmeric, and asafetida. It is mixed with oil or ghee and eaten with flatbread, rice, idli, or whatever. It can also be made with peanuts in place of some of the dal.  It is considered comfort food in many parts of south India.

Gunpowder or Chutney Podi


250gm chana dal
250gm toor dal
6 dried red chiles
1 tbsp roasted Bengal gram (putana)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tbsp black sesame seeds


Dry roast all the ingredients separately. There are various ways to do this.  I use a dry cast-iron skillet on medium heat. You have to stir the ingredients frequently making sure that they toast and become fragrant, but do not burn.

Let each of the ingredients cool, then mix them all together. Grind them to a powder, in batches if necessary.  I use a coffee grinder for this step (not one I use for coffee).

Serve with ghee or oil to accompany idli, flatbread, or rice.

Sep 092017

Today is 9-9 (9th of September) in the Gregorian calendar which makes it the double ninth.  In the lunar calendar, used for religious and civic festivals in Asia, the double ninth (ninth day of the ninth lunar month) is an important day which wanders around October in the Gregorian calendar.  But Japan has modified its lunar calendar events to fit the Gregorian calendar, so today is the double ninth there, also called the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句). I’ll take today’s post to look at all Double-Ninth Festivals in Asia even though it’s celebrated only in Japan on this date this year.

According to the I Ching, nine is a yang number. The ninth day of the ninth lunar month (or double nine) has too much yang and is, thus, a potentially dangerous date. Hence, the day is also called “Double Yang Festival” (重陽節). To protect against danger, it is customary to climb a high mountain, drink chrysanthemum liquor, and wear the zhuyu (茱萸) plant, Cornus officinalis. Both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.

On this holiday some Chinese also visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects. In Hong Kong, whole extended families head to ancestral graves to clean them and repaint inscriptions, and to lay out food offerings such as roast suckling pig and fruit, which are then eaten (after the spirits have consumed the spiritual element of the food). Chongyang Cake is also popular. Incense sticks are burned. Cemeteries get crowded, and each year grass fires are inadvertently started by the burning incense sticks.

The Chinese origin legend is as follows:

Once there was a man named Huan Jing, who believed that a monster would bring pestilence. He told his countrymen to hide on a hill while he went to defeat the monster. Later, people celebrated Huan Jing’s defeat of the monster on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

In 1966, Taiwan rededicated the holiday as “Senior Citizens’ Day”, underscoring one custom as it is observed in China, where the festival is also an opportunity to care for and appreciate the elderly.

Double Ninth may have originated as a day to drive away danger, but like the Chinese New Year, over time it became a day of celebration. In contemporary times it is an occasion for hiking and chrysanthemum appreciation. Stores sell rice cakes (糕 “gāo”, a homophone for height 高) with mini colorful flags to represent zhuyu. Most people drink chrysanthemum tea, while a few traditionalists drink homemade chrysanthemum wine. Children learn poems about chrysanthemums, and many localities host chrysanthemum exhibits. Mountain climbing races are also popular; winners get to wear a wreath made of zhuyu.

In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō but also as the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句) and is celebrated at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There are also traditional sports on the day including crow sumo.

There is an often-quoted Chinese poem about the holiday, Double Ninth, Remembering my Shandong Brothers (九月九日憶山東兄弟), by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei:

dú zài yì xiāng wéi yì kè

měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn

yáo zhī xiōng dì dēng gāo chù

biàn chā zhū yú shǎo yī rén

As a lonely stranger in a foreign land,
At every holiday my homesickness increases.
Far away, I know my brothers have reached the peak;
They are wearing the zhuyu, but one is not present.

There are various cakes made for today called Double Ninth cake, also known as “chrysanthemum cake” or “flower cake”. It dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century – 256 BCE). It is said that the cake was originally prepared after autumn harvests for farmers to have a taste of what was just in season, and it gradually became the cake for people to eat on the Double Ninth Day.

The cake was usually made of glutinous rice flour, millet flour or bean flour. In the Tang Dynasty, its surface was usually planted with a small pennant of multi-colored paper and bore at its center the Chinese character “ling” (order). The Double Ninth cake in the Song Dynasty was usually made with great care a few days before the Double Ninth Day, its surface covered with colored pennants and inlaid with Chinese chestnuts, ginkgo seeds, pine nut kernels and pomegranate seeds.

It was considered a nice festive present for relatives or friends. In the Ming Dynasty, imperial families customarily began to eat the cake early on the first day of the 9th lunar month to mark the festival, while the common people usually enjoyed it with their married daughters. It was basin-sized and covered with two or three layers of jujubes. The cake in the Qing Dynasty was made like a 9-storied pagoda, which was topped with two sheep images made of dough. The cake was called Chong Yang Gao in Chinese, which means Double Ninth cake as “Chong” means double, “Yang” simultaneously suggests nine and sheep, and “Gao” means cake. Also, because “Gao” (cake) shares the pronunciation with “Gao” (high, tall), people hope to get a higher position in life by having Gao on the Double Ninth Day.

Jul 202017

Today is International Chess Day, as proposed by UNESCO because the International Chess Federation (FIDE) was founded on this date in 1924. It has been celebrated on this date since 1966. FIDE, which has 181 chess federations as its members, organizes chess events and competitions around the world on this day. A 2012 Yougov poll showed that “a surprisingly stable 70% of the adult population has played chess at some point during their lives.” The claim is that “the adult population” includes people “in countries as diverse as the US, UK, Germany, Russia, India.” I wouldn’t exactly call these countries “diverse” (with the possible exception of India) but I get the point. If the statistic holds true for my readership I don’t need to spend much time talking about how the modern game of chess works – not that I want to do that, anyway. Instead I’ll talk about some peripheral matters such as the historical antecedents to the game, its near and distant relatives, and some novel chess pieces.

Chess as we know it is generally believed to have evolved in Eastern India, c. 280–550, in the Gupta Empire, where an early form (in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga) (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally “four [military] divisions”  – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. From India the game spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. The earliest physical evidence of a chess-like game (that is, actual game pieces) is found in the nearby Sassanid Persia around 600, where the game came to be known by the name chatrang.

Chatrang was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–44), where it was then named shatranj, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names. In Spanish “shatranj” was rendered as ajedrez (“al-shatranj”), in Portuguese as xadrez, and in Greek as ζατρίκιον (zatrikion, which comes directly from the Persian chatrang), but in the rest of Europe it was replaced by versions of the Persian shāh (“king”), which evolved into the English words “check” and “chess.” The phrase shāh mat (“the king is dead”) became “checkmate.”

The oldest archaeological artifacts, believed to be actual chess pieces, were excavated in ancient Afrasiab (modern Samarkand), in Uzbekistan, and date to about 760, or possibly older. The oldest known chess manual was in Arabic and dates to 840–850, written by al-Adli ar-Rumi (800–870), a renowned Arab chess player, titled Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess). The original manuscript is lost, but it is referenced in later works. The eastern migration of chess, into China and Southeast Asia, has even less documentation than its migration west. The first reference to chess, called Xiang Qi, in China comes in the xuán guaì lù (玄怪录, “record of the mysterious and strange”) dating to about 800. A few scholars contend that modern chess evolved from Xiang Qi (Chinese chess) or one of its predecessors, but this is not the majority opinion.

Chess reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000, it had spread throughout Europe. Chess was Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century and is described in a famous 13th-century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon, and dice  entitled el libro de los juegos (the book of games).

Around 1200, the rules of shatranj started to be modified in southern Europe, and around 1475, several major changes made the game essentially as it is known today. These modern rules for the basic moves had been adopted in Italy and Spain. Pawns gained the option of advancing two squares on their first move, while bishops and queens acquired their modern abilities. The queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece towards the end of the 10th century and by the 15th century had become the most powerful piece; consequently modern chess was referred to as “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess.” Castling was also introduced, derived from the “kings leap” usually in combination with a pawn or rook move to bring the king to safety. These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe. The rules concerning stalemate (a draw when the king cannot move safely) were finalized in the early 19th century. Also in the 19th century, the convention that White moves first was established (formerly either White or Black could move first depending on chance). Finally, the rules concerning castling were standardized – variations in the castling rules had persisted in Italy until the late 19th century. The resulting standard game is sometimes referred to as Western chess or international chess, particularly in Asia where other games of the chess family such as xiangqi are still prevalent. Since the 19th century, the only rule changes have been technical in nature, for example establishing the correct procedure for claiming a draw by repetition.

The increased interest in the game of chess, particularly in international play during the late 18th century and early 19th century, brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model for chess pieces. The variety and styles of the conventional form, begun in the 15th century, had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the 19th century. Conventional types popular during the period included the English Barleycorn chess set, the St. George chess set, the French Regence chess set (named after the Café de la Régence in Paris) and the central European. Most pieces were tall, easily tipped and cumbersome during play, but their major disadvantage was the similarity of the pieces within a set. A player’s unfamiliarity with an opponent’s set could alter the outcome of a game.

By the early decades of the 19th century, it was all too clear that there was a great need for a chess set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by chess players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by the purveyors of fine games, John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers, of Hatton Garden, London England, was to become known as the Staunton chess set after Howard Staunton (1810–1874), the chess player and writer who was generally considered the strongest player in the world from 1843 to 1851. Although Nathaniel Cook has long been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law and owner of the firm, John Jaques.

A few variants of classic chess pop up now and again although they don’t have a lot of popularity.  Three-dimensional chess has a certain following, notably among fans of the original Star Trek series where a fake version of the actual game was featured once in a while.

There’s also four-handed chess which I’ve played a few times in college in my first year because one of my friends was a rabid fan of all manner of games and had groups of us up all night indulging his passion.  Whatever we played he always won.  Four-handed chess is essentially all against all, but you can form temporary alliances. When one player’s king is placed in checkmate, that player’s pieces are frozen, but they can be freed by another player capturing or moving one of the pieces creating the checkmate.

Xiangqi ( 象棋), known as “Chinese chess” in the West, is very popular in parts of China and the Chinese diaspora.  When I lived in Hong Kong I constantly passed games in the street surrounded by crowds of men constantly and loudly voicing their opinions of moves to each other and to the players. The game represents a battle between two armies, with the object of capturing the enemy’s general (king). Distinctive features of xiangqi include the cannon (pao), which must jump to capture; a rule prohibiting the generals from facing each other directly; areas on the board called the river and palace, which restrict the movement of some pieces (but enhance that of others); and placement of the pieces on the intersections of the board lines, rather than within the squares.

Chess pie is a pretty obvious choice for my recipe du jour even though there’s nothing to connect the game to the recipe other than the name. No one has a clear idea as to why the pie is called “chess” pie although there are plenty of ridiculous speculations. Southern gentry used to eat it before (or after) playing chess on their plantations, for example. The basic chess pie is very simple to make and is too sweet for my tastes. Common varieties include lemon chess pie and chocolate chess pie.  Here’s the basics:

Chess Pie


½ cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp cornmeal
¼ cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
9” unbaked pie shell


Preheat your oven to 425˚F/220˚C).

In a large bowl (or stand mixer), cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Mix in the eggs, then beat in the cornmeal, evaporated milk and vinegar until smooth.

Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Then reduce the heat to 300˚F/150˚C) and bake for another 40 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack.

Serve slices cold with whipped cream.

Feb 212017

On this date in 1848 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was first published (in German) in London. It is a much misunderstood document, as is much of Marx’s work in general. I don’t have the space here, nor time, to redress all the misunderstandings, but I’ll make a start. The Manifesto was itself written to correct misunderstandings of what communism is/was, but it was itself misinterpreted badly by European revolutionaries and in points beyond. Marx was not envisaging dictators such as Stalin and Mao, but that’s the model of Marxism that has stuck in the general consciousness in the West, largely as a result of the Cold War.  Marx was addressing the radical divide between the people with all the money (hence power) and the rest of the population that was the model in his day in Europe, and which continues unabated. In my opinion his analysis of the situation (then and now) is generally sound, but his historical analysis is not.  The most important misunderstanding is of the world Marx envisaged – not the oppressive regimes of the likes of 20th century Russia and China, but a world in which the common people (proletariat) were not controlled, mind and soul, by the desires of an oligarchy of very few, very rich people (bourgeoisie), but, instead, controlled their own destinies.

I should probably start with a critique of Marx (and Engels) to demonstrate that I am not some kind of doctrinaire Marxist myself. Marx wrote in an era when very general ideas of the evolution of things were just beginning to catch hold, undoubtedly because Europe was radically changing under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution. A world that had seen precious little in the way of technological change for almost a thousand years was gripped by rapid and constant change and this had an effect on the intellectual world because change was in the air. The Grimms, for example, developed hypotheses concerning the evolution of languages, Lewis Henry Morgan proposed a theory of cultural evolution, and, of course, Darwin was interested in biological evolution. Marx stepped in with his own theory of historical evolution. My “simple” task here will be to try to separate the wheat from the chaff in Marx’s thinking, and will, obviously, end up being simplistic.

Where Marx has proven to be most blatantly wrong is in his hypothesis that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. Over 150 years later it is still going strong, the ultra-rich still hold all the power, and there’s no sign of collapse even though the disparity between rich and the rest is, if anything, greater than it was in Marx’s time in developed countries. The two major countries where a simulacrum of Marx’s ideas led to violent revolution in the 20th century, Russia and China, were not capitalist cultures at the time of their revolutions, but experiencing the last vestiges of feudalism that were ripe to be overturned — and have since adopted capitalist ideals on a large scale (including the huge disparities between the rich and the rest).

What cannot be denied is that the vast majority of people living in contemporary capitalist cultures are, by and large, comfortable. Of course they are exploited and controlled by a tiny minority of very rich people, but their lives are comfortable enough that they are hesitant to seek change, and so they continue as is. We still have plenty of poor people living in horrendous conditions but the Western world does not look like the Victorian London or Manchester of Marx’s day. The bulk of the electorate in Western democracies have food on the table, drive cars, have stable (if tedious) jobs, and aspire to owning their own homes. They have the time and money to go on vacation to exotic places, and they wear decent clothes. Discontent these days centers on the evident slowing of what was once a steady improvement in these comforts, not in the system itself.  Hence the capitalist system will endure unscathed through the rest of my lifetime and beyond. I have no idea what will cause its ultimate demise, but it will end – one day.

1848 was the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. No country emerged untouched, although not all participated in overt revolution. Marx certainly contributed to the general revolutionary fervor with the Manifesto. But the revolutions were fueled by a lot of forces, notably nationalism, apart from the desire for social change.  Marx’s rhetoric was inserted into the revolutions, but socialism of a different sort, led by social philosophers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, and Robert Owen, was also on the horizon, leading in a different, non violent, direction.  They were called “Utopian Socialists” by detractors (including Marxists) because their visions were viewed as naïve.  What is frequently missed is that Marx’s socialist aims were the same as theirs, only the vision of the methods of achieving it was different.

Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric Marx was a humanist. If you read his works prior to the Manifesto  you get a much clearer sense of his underlying humanistic social philosophy. He imagined a post-capitalist world in which farmers collectively owned the farms, workers collectively owned factories, and so forth, and they would inevitably benefit because they would keep all the profits and make all the decisions. We can argue about the validity of this hypothesis, but there is no question that Marx envisaged a brighter world for everyone when the workers were the masters. He did not imagine Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Perhaps he should have. Revolution from the bottom up begets tyrants.  Marx should have known this; the French Revolution produced Napoleon. The American Revolution was different because it was not from the bottom up, but from the top down. The first rebels in the North American colonies were the rich who wanted less taxation and less regulation on their businesses (times don’t change much !!).

Marx was spot on when he pointed out that capitalism commodifies labor so that workers see themselves in terms of their earning power rather than in terms of their inherent human (and individual) traits. Workers thus take less pride in their work and more in their pay check. Work becomes a means to an end (house, car, vacations, etc) rather than an end in itself. In consequence all other social activities, such as education, are judged in terms of their ability to increase earning power and not for their intrinsic merits. I’m absolutely sick and tired of reading article upon article that charts the universities with the graduates who earn the most, the college majors with the best earnings potential, and the careers with the highest salaries.  So what????  I became an anthropologist, a teacher, and a writer because I love doing that work. I can look back on a long career with pride and happiness because my jobs have made me happy, not because I have stacked away piles of money. My riposte to the ages old barbed question, “If you are so smart why aren’t you rich?” is simple. “I am not rich because I am smart; I have other goals in life.”

I am not a doctrinaire Marxist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am enough of a Marxist to believe that people should live in a society where they are free to choose their own destinies, and not shackled by the dictates of the system.

Some apt quotes from the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie . . . has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.


I’ve never wanted to be a chef because I’ve never wanted to debase my cooking via the profit motive.  I cook because I love to cook – end of story.  I hope this blog makes that point loud and clear. Today of all days you should cook something that you most love to cook, and cook with passion – not with an eye to time, cost, or any other variable other than devotion to the task itself. That means that you should choose today what recipe best suits you.  You are the master. For lunch today I had braised rabbit with wild mushrooms in a sauce seasoned with red pepper, garlic, onions, allspice, and ginger, with boiled new potatoes and broad beans on the side.  I’m not going to give you a recipe because (a) I invented the dish as I went along, and (b) today is your day to cook what you choose, not what I have decided for you. My braised rabbit took me 2 days to prepare because I like my dishes to rest overnight when they have complex sauces. I loved the preparation – and it was delicious.

Here’s a small gallery of things I have cooked recently.  In each case I cooked what I wanted without any recipe, just following my heart’s pleasure:

Sep 152016


Today begins the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival (Simplified Chinese: 中秋节, Vietnamese: tết Trung Thu, Korean: 추석), a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese people worldwide. The festival begins on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, corresponding to a date in late September or early October in the Gregorian calendar that ushers in the full moon. It is also a public holiday in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong. The full moon is actually tomorrow (16th ) in Europe and the day after (17th ) in Asia.

Europeans have not cornered the market on nonsense spouted about the ancient “origins” of calendar customs; Asians have their fair share too. In the case of Mid-Autumn Festival in China there is a degree of legitimacy to the notion that it is an ancient festival, but only a degree. The Chinese have celebrated the harvest during the autumn full moon since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 10th century BCE). What this festival looked like is anyone’s guess. Morris Berkowitz, who studied the Hakka people during the 1960s, theorizes that the harvest celebration originally began with worshiping Mountain Gods after the harvest was completed. Supposedly, for the Baiyue peoples, the harvest time commemorated the dragon who brought rain for the crops. Both are speculations based on little evidence. The celebration as a festival did not start to gain popularity until the early Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). One legend says that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang started to hold formal celebrations in his palace after having explored the Moon-Palace (that is, he visited the moon).


The term mid-autumn (中秋) first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE). Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) enjoyed celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival so much that she would spend the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth day of the eighth month staging elaborate rituals.


An important part of the festival celebration was moon worship, now softened to moon symbolism. The ancient Chinese believed in rejuvenation being associated with the moon and water, and connected this concept to the menstruation of women, calling it “monthly water.” (which is pretty much what “menstruate” means without the “water” bit). The Zhuang people, for example, have an ancient fable saying the sun and moon are a couple and the stars are their children, and when the moon is pregnant, it becomes round, and then becomes crescent after giving birth to a child. These stories made it popular among women to give offerings to the moon on this evening. Customs such as this one are rare in China now.


Offerings were also made to a more well-known lunar deity, Chang’e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality. One version of the story is as follows:

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the 15th of the 8th month in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in his garden and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.


In more agrarian times, the festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, it is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives, to eat mooncakes, and to watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs including:

Burning incense

Dragon and lion dances (especially in southern China and Vietnam)



A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people try to guess the answers. It is difficult to discern the original purpose of lanterns in connection to the festival, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in conjunction with moon-worship prior to the Tang Dynasty. Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. But today the lantern has come to symbolize the festival itself.

As China gradually evolved from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian-commercial one, traditions from other festivals began to be transmitted into the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as the putting of lanterns on rivers to guide the spirits of the drowned as practiced during the Ghost Festival, which is observed a month before. Hong Kong fishermen during the Qing Dynasty, for example, would put up lanterns on their boats for the Ghost Festival and keep the lanterns up until Mid-Autumn Festival.


In Vietnam, children participate in parades in the dark under the full moon with lanterns of various forms, shapes, and colors. Traditionally, lanterns signified the wish for the sun’s light and warmth to return after winter. In addition to carrying lanterns, the children also wore masks. Elaborate masks were made of papier-mâché, though it is more common to find masks made of plastic nowadays. Handcrafted shadow lanterns were an important part of Mid-Autumn displays since the 12th century Ly dynasty, often of historical figures from Vietnamese history. Handcrafted lantern-making has declined in modern times due to the availability of mass-produced plastic lanterns, which often depict internationally recognized characters such as Pokémon’s Pikachu, Disney characters, SpongeBob SquarePants and Hello Kitty.

maf9 maf16

Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of this festival. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion. Thus, the sharing and eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signify the completeness and unity of families. In some areas of China, there is a tradition of making mooncakes during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The senior person in that household cuts the mooncakes into pieces and distribute them to each family member, signifying family reunion. In modern times, however, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of giving mooncakes to family members, although the meaning of maintaining familial unity remains.

maf10 Huge mooncake appears in central China

Although typical mooncakes can be around a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made some as large as several feet in diameter, with its surface impressed with designs of Chang’e, cassia trees, or the Moon-Palace. One tradition is to pile 13 mooncakes on top of each other to mimic a pagoda, the number 13 being chosen to represent the 13 months in a full lunar year.

According to Chinese folklore, a Turpan businessman offered cakes to Emperor Taizong of Tang in his victory against the Xiongnu on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Taizong took the round cakes and pointed to the moon with a smile, saying, “I’d like to invite the toad to enjoy the hú (胡) cake.” After sharing the cakes with his ministers, the custom of eating these hú cakes spread throughout the country. Eventually these became known as mooncakes. Although the legend explains the beginnings of mooncake-giving, its popularity and ties to the festival began during the Song Dynasty (906–1279 CE).

Another popular legend concerns the Han Chinese’s uprising against the ruling Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368 CE), in which the Han Chinese used traditional mooncakes to conceal the message that they were to rebel on Mid-Autumn Day. Because of strict controls on Han Chinese families imposed by the Mongols in which only 1 out of every 10 households was allowed to own a knife guarded by a Mongolian guard, this coordinated message was important to gather as many available weapons as possible.

maf18 maf19

Imperial dishes served on this occasion included nine-jointed lotus roots which symbolize peace, and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals which symbolize reunion. Teacups were placed on stone tables in the garden, where the family would pour tea and chat, waiting for the moment when the full moon’s reflection appeared in the center of their cups. Owing to the timing of the plant’s blossoms, cassia wine is the traditional choice for the “reunion wine” drunk on the occasion. Also, people will celebrate by eating cassia cakes and candy.

Food offerings made to deities were placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table was a clay statue of the Jade Rabbit. In Chinese folklore, the Jade Rabbit was an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang’e. Offerings of soy beans and cockscomb flowers were made to the Jade Rabbit. Nowadays, in southern China, people will also eat some seasonal fruit that may differ in different district but carrying the same meaning of blessing.

I gave a pretty complete description of mooncakes here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giordano-bruno-crater/  No need to repeat myself. Most Chinese buy them rather than make them these days. You’ll find them on sale everywhere from regular markets to street stalls. For today’s celebration I recommend dragon fruit also known as pitaya.


Sweet pitayas come in three species, all with leathery, slightly leafy skin:

Hylocereus undatus (Pitaya blanca or white-fleshed pitaya) has red-skinned fruit with white flesh. This is the most commonly seen dragon fruit.

Hylocereus costaricensis (Pitaya roja or red-fleshed pitaya, also known as Hylocereus polyrhizus) has red-skinned fruit with red flesh.

Hylocereus megalanthus (Pitaya amarilla or yellow pitaya, also known as Selenicereus megalanthus) has yellow-skinned fruit with white flesh.


Dragon fruit are very common in Asia but you won’t find them often in the West, although popularity is increasing. They’re touted for their health benefits, but they don’t appear to have much more in the way of nutrients than other more common fruit. I had them first in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and was not hugely impressed. They’re rather bland, in the same ballpark as kiwis. I ended up mixing mine with other fruit in a fruit salad. That works for me.


Sep 082016


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

Part 1 (The batter)

Part 2 (The filling)

Part 3 (The tortilla)