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

Ingredients:

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

Instructions

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:

獨在異鄉為異客,
dú zài yì xiāng wéi yì kè

每逢佳節倍思親。
měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn

遙知兄弟登高處,
yáo zhī xiōng dì dēng gāo chù

遍插茱萸少一人。
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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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
 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Lanterns

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sep 082016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1 (The batter)


Part 2 (The filling)


Part 3 (The tortilla)

Sep 042016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jun 192016
 

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Today is the third Sunday in June which is Father’s Day in a great many countries – but not all by any means. It is Father’s Day in the countries I am, or have been, most closely associated with, namely Britain, the U.S., Argentina, and China, so I’ll use it as my day’s theme. Prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Father’s Day was celebrated in China on August 8. This was determined by the fact that the Eighth (ba) day of the Eighth (ba) month makes two “eight”s (八八, ba-ba), which sounds similar to the colloquial word for “daddy” (ba-ba,爸爸). It is still celebrated on this date in some areas.  Father’s Day in Italy is St Joseph’s Day (19 March).

I will add a caution. I tend to be a bit chary of celebratory days for things that I think should be normal, everyday things. I don’t like Valentine’s Day for that reason, for example. When I love another it is a permanent state, and I like to do “special” things all the time for that person, rather than on a particular day. Likewise “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” is one of the Ten Commandments. Not only is there no need to pick out a special day for this, but, in fact, having only one day in the year for such action is really counter to the whole spirit of the commandment. You should hold your parents in high esteem EVERY day.

I imagine that all these “special” days are promoted by greeting card manufacturers and the like to boost sales at slow times of the year. Valentine’s Day shifts people out of the doldrums of the post-Christmas blahs, and June is a slow month, so why not stick Father’s Day in there to liven it up? Maybe I sound cynical, but I am sure I am right. All that having been said, let me honor my own father today after a little discussion of the history of the celebration.

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After Anna Jarvis’ successful promotion of Mother’s Day in Grafton, West Virginia, the first observance of a “Father’s Day” in the United States was held on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia, in the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South, now known as Central United Methodist Church. Grace Golden Clayton was mourning the loss of her father when, on December 1907, the Monongah Mining Disaster in nearby Monongah killed 361 men, 250 of them fathers, leaving around 1,000 fatherless children. It has been described as the worst mining disaster in US history. Clayton suggested that her pastor, Robert Thomas Webb, honor all those fathers.

Clayton’s event did not have repercussions outside of Fairmont for several reasons, among them: the city was overwhelmed by other events, the celebration was never promoted outside of the town itself and no proclamation was made in the city council. Also two events overshadowed this event: the celebration of Independence Day July 4, 1908, with 12,000 attendants and several shows including a hot air balloon event, which took over the headlines in the following days, plus the death of a 16-year-old girl on July 4. The local church and council were overwhelmed and they did not even think of promoting the event, and it was not celebrated again for many years. The original sermon was not reproduced in the press and it was lost. Also, Clayton was a rather quiet person, who never promoted the event or even talked to other people about it.

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In 1910, a Father’s Day celebration was held on 19 June in Spokane, Washington, at the YMCA by Sonora Smart Dodd, who was born in Arkansas. Her father, Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, was a single parent who had raised his six children in Spokane. After hearing a sermon about Jarvis’ Mother’s Day in 1909 at Central Methodist Episcopal Church, she told her pastor that fathers should have a similar holiday honoring them. Although she initially suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, the pastors did not have enough time to prepare their sermons, and the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June. Several local clergymen accepted the idea, and on June 19, 1910, the first Father’s Day, “sermons honoring fathers were presented throughout the city.”

It took a long time for Father’s Day to be recognized officially in the US, and was not signed into law as a national holiday until 1972. People – rightly – feared that it would be commercialized and resisted movements in this direction. Oh well, it happened anyway. Stores throughout the US and Britain put out an unceasing barrage of advertisements for stuff to give dad. Very annoying.

My father died 35 years ago, so even if I were tempted to, I can’t run out and buy him a new power saw or tool belt. He wouldn’t have wanted them anyway. Maybe he would have been touched, though, if I had paid tribute to him in some way. In the family he was known as papa (and still is). This is the Spanish version of “dad” but I am not sure if it originated in Argentina, where one of my sisters and I were born, or in some other way.

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This is what I wrote a few years ago:

Here’s my papa some time in the 1950’s — my sisters could probably narrow it down more. He was the man responsible for the fact that I was born in Argentina and had lived on 3 continents by the age of six. He was the man who showed me what fun it was to cook. He was the man who passed on to me the joy of knowledge. He showed me that it was all right for men to cry. He was the man who loved me. When I was an infant and he took my hand for safety on the street I was nine feet tall. He loved to play with me on his knees when I was a little boy — a happy memory. I never met his father but it was clear from the stories he told me that he idolized him. Fathers and sons are a powerful force of nature. Get between them only if you do not value your life. We are permitted to fight with one another — NO ONE else is.

Papa and I had our differences, of course, but I’m certainly not going to wash our dirty linens in public, and I take very seriously the Roman adage, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.  I’ll be his Mark Anthony. He was born in Glasgow, and his father was a horse breeder and mortician. On my papa’s birth certificate his father is listed as an ambulance driver because that was his service in World War I when my papa was born. Otherwise he kept a stable of pure-black horses and conducted funerals using a horse-drawn hearse. Papa always spoke admiringly of him.

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Papa left Glasgow at the age of 18 and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, training at the Royal Naval College. Before World War II he served on several ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, visiting Argentina, India, Australia, China, and Japan, among other places, at a time when most Brits barely left their home towns. In this way he developed a zest for world travel, and began picking up languages. I don’t know the full extent of his linguistic ability, but I spent many hours with him as a boy while he happily conversed with people in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Danish. He held an honors degree from London University in Spanish, and most of his personal library – which we dragged around the world – was books in Spanish.

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When World War II began he spent most of his time on ships in the Atlantic and was part of the evacuation forces at Dunkirk. In 1944 he was crippled in action and repatriated to a hospital in Sussex where he met my mother. Several months after he was taken to England, his ship was torpedoed with enormous loss of life. After recuperation he served in the Merchant Navy and retired after the war. Then the traveling began in earnest – Argentina, England, Australia, then back to England, and finally back to Scotland. I see in him a mirror of my own life. Though born in Scotland, he lived most of his life in other countries. Yet he was always a Scot at heart, and returned in later life because Scotland was his home. I was born in Buenos Aires but, courtesy of papa (and then on my own), journeyed the world until at age 59 I returned to Argentina and immediately knew that I was home.

Fatherhood, in turn, changed me beyond recognition. I used to say when my son was a baby — “you know you are a father when your son throws up on your best tailored suit, and all you care about is whether he is all right.” This is not the place to tout my own credentials as a father, but I will say that by becoming a father I became aware of what my papa had done for me.

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My mother was the main family cook, with my elder sister pitching in. But on Saturdays my papa was the lunch cook. He also cooked on special occasions sometimes. His normal lunch dishes were curry and spaghetti. It’s important to realize that in the 1950s, when he began cooking for the family, Indian and Italian food were virtually unknown in England and Australia. Best you might do is get tinned, processed spaghetti (to warm up and eat on toast). Yet in that miasma of ignorance papa created amazing international cuisine. I have a vivid memory of him making ravioli from scratch once. The filling was brains, spinach, and cheese, and he hand made the pasta on the kitchen table.  He made the pasta by building a hollow mound of flour, cracking eggs into the middle, and working it all together with his hands, then rolling it into flat sheets with a rolling pin. Making the ravioli was genius. Papa laid one sheet of pasta on the table, dabbed the filling around and then laid a second sheet of pasta on top. We had a wooden utensil for shaping the ravioli, a little like the one in the photo, but larger and without the serrated edges. When papa placed it over the pasta it separated the sheet into square pillows which he then cut out with a pastry wheel.

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My legacy from my papa in cooking was at least two-fold. First, he taught me that food was much more than roast lamb and boiled cabbage. English cooking has many merits, as I have been at pains to point out over the past 3 years, but papa taught me how much more there was to world cuisine by making it right in our own kitchen. Second, I grew up watching him cook exotic stuff, but just figured it was regular. So, when it came my turn to make pasta I was not remotely daunted; I figured it was normal. I should say too that both my sisters are superb cooks.

Spaghetti and tuco was a perennial Saturday favorite. I was a mature teen before I realized that “tuco” was not the regular Italian word for a tomato-based pasta sauce. Argentinos call that sauce tuco. In our kitchen my papa used several Argentine-Spanish words that I just assumed were the regular words for things. A big stock pot was an olla for example (pronounced /ozha/). How was I to know that no one else outside of Argentina called it that? Somewhere knocking around the house was a gaucho-style mate and bombilla set that I can still smell – the smell of Argentina. Late night if papa were hungry he’d break out the skillet and make a classic Argentine tortilla. That’s how I learned to make them. Argentine Milanesa was a favorite dinner.

Argentine tuco is, of course, derived from Italian pasta sauces. Papa’s tuco was close to a Bolognese sauce. You can find them meatless in some households in Buenos Aires but usually they contain a lot of ground beef. Papa, like me, was not wedded to recipes, and in any case it’s been 55 years since I last tasted his offering. This is my recipe based on what I remember. The main point is that you are aiming for a sauce in which the meat is prominent and the consistency is thick. Oregano is commonly available in Buenos Aires, but my papa did not use it for tuco, and it is not a usual ingredient for the sauce in Argentina. Garlic and onion are the prime flavorings. Papa normally used lard for frying, but once he used olive oil and was delighted with it. He said that the aroma of it heating reminded him of olive groves in Italy. For health and taste I’d go with olive oil. Argentinos use beef but my papa used lamb or beef depending on what was available. Lamb was more usual in Australia.

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Tuco

Ingredients

500 g ground beef
500 g tinned tomatoes, chopped with juice
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
vegetable oil
1 cup beef stock
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the beef and brown it gently. You will probably need a wooden spoon to break it up and separate it, so that you do not have any clumps. The ground beef pieces should all be separate.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, the tomato paste, the garlic, and the beef stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Simmer gently, uncovered, over low heat for about an hour. You want the sauce to be very thick and meaty.

Serve over cooked spaghetti.

Jan 162016
 

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Today is the birthday (1902) of Eric Liddell, Scottish runner, rugby player, and missionary to China, whose fame was revived by the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Liddell was the second son of the Rev and Mrs James Dunlop Liddell, who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Liddell went to school in China until the age of five. At the age of six, he and his eight-year-old brother Robert were enrolled in Eltham College, a boarding school in south London for the sons of missionaries. At Eltham, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman, being awarded the Blackheath Cup as the best athlete of his year, playing for the First XI and the First XV by the age of 15, later becoming captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. His headmaster, George Robertson, described him as being “Entirely without vanity, he was enormously popular. Very early he showed signs of real character. His standards had been set for him long before he came to school. There was no pride or fuss about him, but he knew what he stood for.”

In 1920, Liddell joined his brother Robert at the University of Edinburgh to study Pure Science. Athletics and rugby played a large part in his university life. He ran in the 100 yards and 220 yards races for Edinburgh University and played rugby for the University club, from which he gained a place in the backline of a strong Scottish national rugby union team. In 1922 and 1923, he played in seven out of eight Five Nations matches along. In 1923 he won the AAA Championships in athletics in the 100 yards (setting a British record of 9.7 seconds that would not be equaled for 23 years) and 220 yards (21.6 seconds). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree after the Paris Olympiad in 1924.

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The 1924 Summer Olympics were hosted by the city of Paris. Because he was a devout Christian of a particular stripe, Liddell refused to run in a heat held on Sunday and was forced to withdraw from the 100-meters race, his best event. The schedule had been published several months earlier, and, contrary to the portrayal of this action in Chariots of Fire, he made this decision well before the Games. There was no tense meeting with the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales invoking his patriotism. Liddell spent the months before the games training for the 400 meters, though his best pre-Olympics time of 49.6 seconds, set in winning the 1924 AAA championship 440 yards, was modest by international standards.

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The pipe band of the 51st Highland Brigade played outside the stadium for the hour before he ran. At the time, the 400 meters was considered a middle-distance event in which runners raced round the first bend, coasted through the back leg, then put on a sprint in the home straight . Deprived of a view of the other runners because he drew the outside lane, Liddell sprinted the whole of the first 200 meters to be well clear of the favored U.S. runners. He then treated the race as a complete sprint, and, even though he was challenged all the way down the home straight, he held on to take the gold. He broke the Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds. It was controversially ratified as a world record, despite it being 0.2 seconds slower than the record for the greater distance of 440 yards.

A few days earlier Liddell had competed in the 200 meter finals, for which he took the bronze medal behind U.S. runners Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, beating British rival and teammate Harold Abrahams, who finished in sixth place, but went on to take the gold in the 100 meters. His performance in the 400 meters in Paris stood as a European record for 12 years, until beaten by another British athlete, Godfrey Brown, at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Here’s a film of Abrahams and Liddell running in the Olympics.

After the Olympics and graduation from Edinburgh University, Liddell continued to compete. His refusal to compete on Sunday meant he had also missed the Olympic 4 x 400 relay, in which Britain finished third. Shortly after the Games, his final leg in the 4 × 400 meters race in a British Empire vs. USA contest helped secure the victory over the gold-medal winning U.S. team. A year later, in 1925, at the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association (SAAA) meeting in Hampden Park in Glasgow, he equaled his Scottish championship record of 10.0 seconds in the 100, won the 220 yard contest in 22.2 seconds, won the 440 yard contest in 47.7, and participated in a winning relay team. He was only the fourth athlete to have won all three sprints at the SAAA, achieving this feat in 1924 and 1925. These were his final races on British soil.

Because of his birth and death in China, some of that country’s Olympic literature lists Liddell as China’s first Olympic champion.

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Liddell returned to Northern China to serve as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943 – first in Tianjin and later in the town of Xiaozhang, in Hebei province, an extremely poor area that had suffered during the country’s civil wars and had become a particularly treacherous battleground with the invasion of the Japanese.

During his time in China as a missionary, Liddell continued to compete sporadically, including wins over members of the 1928 French and Japanese Olympic teams in the 200 and 400 meters at the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in China in 1928 and a victory at the 1930 North China championship. He returned to Scotland only twice, in 1932 and again in 1939. On one occasion he was asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics. Liddell responded, “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”

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Liddell’s first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1–12) for wealthy Chinese students. While he is best known for athletics, his true passion was found in his missionary work. He believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy, they would become influential figures in China and promote Christian values. Liddell used his athletic experience to train boys in a number of different sports. One of his many responsibilities was that of superintendent of the Sunday school at Union Church where his father was pastor.

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During his first furlough from missionary work in 1932, he was ordained as a minister. On his return to China he married Florence Mackenzie, of Canadian missionary parentage, in Tianjin in 1934. The couple had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen, the last of whom he would not live to see. The school where Liddell taught is still in use today. One of his daughters visited Tianjin in 1991 and presented the headmaster of the school with one of the medals that Liddell had won for athletics.

In 1941 life in China had become so dangerous because of Japanese aggression that the British government advised British nationals to leave. Florence (who was pregnant with Maureen) and the children left for Canada to stay with her family when Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, which served the poor. He joined his brother, Rob, who was a doctor there. The station was severely short of help and the missionaries there were exhausted. A constant stream of locals came at all hours for medical treatment. Liddell arrived at the station in time to relieve his brother, who was ill and needing to go on furlough.

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As fighting between the Chinese Eighth Route Army and invading Japanese reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell returned to Tianjin. In 1943, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang) with the members of the China Inland Mission, Chefoo School (in the city now known as Yantai), and many others. Liddell became a leader and organiser at the camp, but food, medicine and other supplies were scarce. There were many cliques in the camp and when some rich businessmen managed to smuggle in some eggs, Liddell shamed them into sharing them. While fellow missionaries formed cliques, moralized and acted selfishly, Liddell busied himself by helping the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and by teaching science to the children, who referred to him as Uncle Eric.

One of his fellow internees, Norman Cliff, later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way (樂道院, also translated as “The Campus of Loving Truth”), which detailed the remarkable characters in the camp. Cliff described Liddell as “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody”. Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in the U.S., said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, Liddell wrote of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. He actually had an inoperable brain tumor, but fatigue and malnourishment may have hastened his death. Liddell died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation. Langdon Gilkey later wrote, “The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.” According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender”, in reference to how he had given his life to God.

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In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp, and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. Apparently, the Japanese and British, with Churchill’s approval, had agreed upon a prisoner exchange. News of this final act of sacrifice surprised even his family members.

Liddell had this to say about food when training:

My ideas on the diet of an athlete are different for different athletes. Some will find that they do best by dieting, others who are used to living on simple fare will find that they need to do very little in that direction. As I lived with 12 or 13 others in the Edinburgh Medical Mission, I just took what they took. Actually on the day of running I avoided pastry, plum pudding, and all foods that would obviously be too heavy as passengers for the afternoon. On one day on which I ran I took plum pudding, and that day I ran the second fastest ‘quarter’ I have ever run in Scotland.

A “quarter” is 440 yards, that is, a quarter of a mile.

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Scots do make a plum pudding like an English Christmas pudding, but they also make clootie dumpling, which is similar but lacks eggs and milk. It has a light skin formed by flouring the cloth that it is boiled in.

Clootie Dumpling

1 lb self raising flour
1 lb dried fruit (sultanas, raisins etc.)
4 oz grated suet
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp each powdered ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice

Instructions

Mix the ingredients together thoroughly in a large bowl, then add cold water a little at a time to form a sticky dough that will hold together.

Spread out a large piece of muslin or cheesecloth (doubled) and flour it lightly. Use your hands (floured) to scoop out the dough and make a mound in the center of the cloth. Sprinkle flour lightly on top of the dough. Then draw up the cloth and tie it securely at the top to form a ball.

Set a trivet in the bottom of a large pot and half fill it with water. Place the dumpling on the trivet and bring the water to a gentle boil. The water should come about halfway up the side of the dumpling. Cover and gently boil for about 3 hours or more. Keep an eye on the water level and top up with warm water as needed.

The dumpling will set firmly and can be unwrapped on to a serving dish. Serve with fresh egg custard.

Dec 222015
 

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Today is the birthday (1858) of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, Italian composer whose operas are generally seen as standards. While his early work was rooted in traditional late-19th-century romantic Italian opera, he successfully developed his work in the realistic verismo style, of which he became one of the leading exponents.

Puccini was born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini in Lucca in Tuscany. He was one of nine children of Michele Puccini and Albina Magi. The Puccini family was established in Lucca as a local musical dynasty by Puccini’s great-great grandfather – also named Giacomo (1712–1781). This first Giacomo Puccini was maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Antonio Puccini, and then by Antonio’s son Domenico, and Domenico’s son Michele (father of the subject of this article). Each of these men studied music at Bologna, and some took additional musical studies elsewhere. Domenico Puccini studied for a time under Giovanni Paisiello. Each composed music for the church. In addition, Domenico composed several operas, and Michele composed one opera. Puccini’s father Michele enjoyed a reputation throughout northern Italy, and his funeral was an occasion of public mourning, at which the then-famed composer Giovanni Pacini conducted a Requiem.

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With the Puccini family having occupied the position of maestro di cappella for 124 years (1740–1864) by the time of Michele’s death, it was anticipated that Michele’s son Giacomo would occupy that position as well when he was old enough. However, when Michele Puccini died in 1864, his son Giacomo was only six years old, and thus not capable of taking over his father’s job. As a child, he nevertheless participated in the musical life of the Cattedrale di San Martino, as a member of the boys’ choir and later as a substitute organist.

Puccini was given a general education at the seminary of San Michele in Lucca, and then at the seminary of the cathedral. One of Puccini’s uncles, Fortunato Magi, supervised his musical education. Puccini got a diploma from the Pacini School of Music in Lucca in 1880, having studied there with his uncle Fortunato, and later with Carlo Angeloni, who had also instructed Alfredo Catalani. A grant from the Italian Queen Margherita, and assistance from another uncle, Nicholas Cerù, provided the funds necessary for Puccini to continue his studies at the Milan Conservatory, where he studied composition with Stefano Ronchetti-Monteviti, Amilcare Ponchielli, and Antonio Bazzini. Puccini studied at the conservatory for three years. In 1880, at the age of 21, Puccini composed his Mass, which marks the culmination of his family’s long association with church music in his native Lucca.

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Puccini wrote an orchestral piece called the Capriccio sinfonica as a thesis composition for the Milan Conservatory. Puccini’s teachers Ponchielli and Bazzini were impressed by the work, and it was performed at a student concert at the conservatory. Puccini’s work was favorably reviewed in the Milanese publication Perseveranza, and thus Puccini began to build a reputation as a young composer of promise in Milanese music circles.

To run through Puccini’s life and career would, I fear, be otiose; his operas have lasting fame and popularity. Rather, I will take a somewhat quirky personal glimpse at Turandot, an enduring favorite with audiences, not least because of the 3rd act climactic aria nessun dorma, which has become the quintessence of classic operatic tenor mode – rather overdone these days.

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I’ll start with a quote from a critic, just to underscore my dislike for the breed. Michael Tanner writes in The Spectator in 2013:

Turandot is an irredeemable work, a terrible end to a career that had included three indisputable masterpieces and three less evident ones, counting Il Trittico as one. Any operatic composer who gets to the stage, as Puccini had, of searching through one play or novel after another, dissatisfied with any subject he is offered, should almost certainly give up.

This very much reminds me of Joseph Kerman who said, “Nobody would deny that dramatic potential can be found in this tale. Puccini, however, did not find it; his music does nothing to rationalize the legend or illuminate the characters,” and “while Turandot is more suave musically than Tosca, dramatically it is a good deal more depraved.” Hurrah for Sir Thomas Beecham who once remarked that anything that Joseph Kerman said about Puccini “can safely be ignored.”

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I’m not going to claim that Turandot is perfect: it is not. But it is musically more challenging than most of Puccini’s other works, and the tale itself is much darker and more profound than the critics allow. Though Puccini’s first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play, Turandot, Puccini’s work is more closely based on the earlier text Turandot by Carlo Gozzi. The original story of Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan) comes from the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties), the work of 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. The opera’s story, however, is set in China and involves Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die.

The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. The first performance was held at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 25 April 1926 and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This performance included only Puccini’s music and not Alfano’s additions. As tribute to Puccini, Toscanini laid down his baton at the end of Puccini’s composition, and the first performance of the opera as completed by Alfano came the following night, 26 April. A newspaper report published the day before the premiere states that Puccini himself gave Toscanini the suggestion to stop the opera performance at the final notes composed by Puccini:

A few weeks before his death, after having made Toscanini listen to the opera, Puccini exclaimed: “If I don’t succeed in finishing it, at this point someone will come to the footlights and will say: ‘The author composed until here, and then he died.'” Arturo Toscanini related Puccini’s words with great emotion, and, with the swift agreement of Puccini’s family and the publishers, decided that the evening of the first performance, the opera would appear as the author left it, with the anguish of being unable to finish.

Puccini and Toscanini

Puccini and Toscanini

The opera is, indeed, anguished in theme – and continues so in its performance history.

Act 3 troubles the critics a great deal, and, sadly, many reduce it to a kind of hormonal muddle instead of the climax of a complex tale, entwined with Puccini’s own life. If you don’t know the tale you’ll have to look it up – sorry. The first component that worries the critics is the torture and death of the slave girl Liù, who kills herself rather than reveal the prince’s name under Turandot’s brutal treatment. Many critics find this subplot needlessly callous. But this component may well be tangentially related to Puccini’s life. In 1909, Puccini’s wife Elvira publicly accused Doria Manfredi, a maid working for the Puccini family, of having an affair with the composer. After being publicly accused of adultery, Doria Manfredi committed suicide. An autopsy determined, however, that Doria had died a virgin, refuting the allegations made against her. Elvira Puccini was prosecuted for slander, and was sentenced to more than five months in prison, although a payment to the Manfredi family by Puccini spared Elvira from having to serve the sentence. Puccini was certainly a philanderer, but in this case he was innocent. Yet he still thought of himself as the indirect cause of Doria’s death – partly because Elvira’s accusations were fair, but misdirected.

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Act 3 is somewhat disjointed perhaps because Puccini was not able to finish it as he intended, and Alfano’s work, though based on Puccini’s sketches may not rise to the challenges of a complex ending. Alfano picks up the story after Liù’s death with Calaf’s rough attempt to seduce Turandot followed by him revealing his name, thus giving her the choice to love him in return or execute him. Eventually her icy heart melts and she admits that she knows his true name – it is “Love.” The critics tend to laugh off the ending as hormones at work, but I disagree. Calaf shows his honor by giving Turandot a way out, even though he has answered her riddles, and when she fails to guess his name, tells her flat out, proving that he would rather die than not be loved by her in return. Turandot, for her part, confesses that her iciness and hardness of heart towards Calaf, are components of her passionate heart, the reverse side of which is love. She might as well have had Freud speak her words for her. It’s really not Puccini’s fault if the critics can’t see the richness.

There’s also a certain oddity in setting Turandot in China because it’s really a Persian tale that had run through the hands of French, German, and Italian interpreters before Puccini used it. Nonetheless Puccini made some inspired compositional choices in using Chinese melodies for certain themes. The classic case is his use of the 18th century song 茉莉花 (“Jasmine Flower”), sung here by Song Zuying:

Here it is in La sui monti:

For most of the 20th century, for one reason or another, Turandot was not performed in China, and yet now is regaled as the national opera. Some critics claim it was banned by the People’s Republic because it cast China in a bad light. They don’t know what they are talking about, as usual. Things are never that simple in China. True, it did not see the light of day in China until the 1990’s, but this was not because of an outright ban, but because successive applications to produce it were turned down, each time for a different reason. Sure there was a sense that the opera was unfair to “modern” China underneath it all, but various influential Chinese also objected to the brutality, sexuality, and so forth. A 2008 production in Beijing marked Puccini’s 150th birthday, featuring a new ending written by Hao Weiya, based on Puccini’s sketches. It departs from Alfano’s ending chiefly in making Turandot’s change of heart a direct consequence of Liù’s suicide rather than of Calaf’s ardor – much more in keeping with Chinese sentiment.

Nessun dorma got a huge boost when Luciano Pavarotti’s recording became the theme song of the 1990 FIFA world cup in Italy. Here is a youthful Pavarotti onstage:

Puccini’s native Lucca is home to a well known cuisine. Here is a lucchese rabbit stew with olives. Italians routinely have pasta as a first course and meat dishes, such as this one, as a second course. So you can serve it with crusty bread. I’ll leave you to it as to quantities.

Coniglio con le olive alla lucchese

Ingredients

1 rabbit, cut in 8 pieces
2 (or more) shallots, peeled and chopped
extra virgin olive oil
nutmeg
Italian black olives
juice of a lemon
white wine

Instructions:

Sauté the shallots in a heavy skillet in olive oil until they are translucent. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set them aside.

Brown the rabbit pieces in the olive oil on all sides, over high heat. Return the shallots and add white wine to cover, plus lemon juice, nutmeg (freshly grated if possible), and olives. I sometimes add in grated lemon zest for an extra punch. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 35-40 minutes. During this time the sauce should reduce and thicken. Add more wine if it gets too dry.