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.

Sep 272015
 

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On this date in 1540 Paul III confirmed the establishment of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as Jesuits) through the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae (“To the Government of the Church Militant”). This is an interesting post for me to write because it combines my interests in anniversaries (and cooking) here, with my other blog http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com where I get to ramble on about religion. Passion Intellect Persistence is new, barely a week old, and I encourage you to check it out if concerns about faith, spirituality, Bible analysis etc. appeal to you. Here I want to deal with why the Jesuits were founded in the first place and explore a little bit of their history. In the interests of fairness I will admit up front that I don’t care for great swathes of Catholic dogma, and the Jesuit role in the counter-Reformation disturbs me a little.

I am not big on Christian evangelizing in general (despite the fact that I am an ordained pastor), nor Catholic evangelizing in particular. Going to colonized countries and attempting to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity, no matter what the flavor, does not float my boat. On the other hand, the Jesuits in the New World, especially in my part of South America, did a lot of good work, especially in the way they set up reportedly well-run communities in concert with indigenous leaders, and prevented the Spanish colonists from forcibly enslaving the local populations. I also admire the Jesuits for making the development of an educated clergy a top priority. In the 16th century a great many Catholic clergy were minimally educated and simply followed the rules they were given by their seniors. The Jesuits sought to change that, and to reform the Catholic church from within because they saw the power and popular appeal of contemporary Protestantism that encouraged, education, reading the Bible (in the vernacular), and preaching, so that congregations had a real grasp of Christianity, worship, and the sacraments, instead of simply reciting formulae in Latin (which they did not understand), and following the priest’s lead in everything. I’m hip to any group that encourages people to think for themselves.

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Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus after being wounded in battle and experiencing a religious conversion. He composed the Spiritual Exercises to help others follow the teachings of Jesus. In 1534, Ignatius and six other young men, including Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, gathered and professed vows of poverty, chastity, and, later, obedience, including a special vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of mission direction and assignment.

Ignatius was a nobleman who had a military background, and the members of the society were supposed to accept orders anywhere in the world, where they might be required to live in extreme conditions. Accordingly, the opening lines of the founding document declared that the Society was founded for “whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God, to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.” Jesuits are thus sometimes referred to colloquially as “God’s Soldiers”, “God’s Marines”, or “the Company”, references to Ignatius’ history as a soldier and the society’s commitment to accepting orders anywhere and to endure any conditions.

On 15 August 1534, Ignatius of Loyola (born Íñigo López de Loyola), a Spaniard of Basque origin, and six other students at the University of Paris—Francisco Xavier from Navarre (modern Spain), Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laínez, Nicolás Bobadilla from Spain, Peter Faber from Savoy, and Simão Rodrigues from Portugal—met in Montmartre outside Paris, in a crypt beneath the church of Saint Denis, now Saint Pierre de Montmartre. They called themselves the Company of Jesus, and also Amigos en El Señor or “Friends in the Lord”, because they felt “they were placed together by Christ”. The name had echoes of the military (as in an infantry “company”), as well as of discipleship (the “companions” of Jesus).

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In 1537, they traveled to Italy to seek papal approval for their order. Pope Paul III gave them a commendation, and permitted them to be ordained priests. They were ordained in Venice by the bishop of Arbe (24 June). They then presented their finished project for their order to Paul III, and after months of dispute, a congregation of cardinals reported favorably upon the Constitution presented, and Paul III confirmed the order through Regimini militantis ecclesiae, but limited the number of its members to sixty (later amended). This is the founding document of the Jesuits as an official Catholic religious order. Ignatius was chosen as the first superior-general (leader of the Jesuits), and he sent his companions as missionaries around Europe to create schools, colleges, and seminaries.

In fulfilling the mission of the “Formula of the Institute of the Society”, the first Jesuits concentrated on a few key activities. First, they founded schools throughout Europe. Jesuit teachers were rigorously trained in both classical studies and theology, and their schools reflected this. Second, they sent out missionaries across the globe to evangelize those peoples who had not yet heard the gospel, founding missions in widely diverse regions, such as modern-day Paraguay, Japan, Ontario, and Ethiopia. Finally, though not initially formed for the purpose, they aimed to stop Protestantism from spreading and to preserve communion with Rome and the pope. The zeal of the Jesuits overcame the movement toward Protestantism in Poland-Lithuania and southern Germany.

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Ignatius wrote the Jesuit Constitutions, adopted in 1553, which created a tightly centralized organization and stressed total abnegation and obedience to the pope and their religious superiors (perinde ac [si] cadaver [essent],”[well-disciplined] like a corpse,” as Ignatius put it). His main principle became the unofficial Jesuit motto: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam (“For the greater glory of God”). This phrase is designed to reflect the idea that any work that is not evil can be meritorious for the spiritual life if it is performed with this intention, even things normally considered of little importance. As we shall see, this can include cooking (for others). The Society of Jesus is classified among institutes as a mendicant order of clerks regular, that is, a body of priests organized for apostolic work, following a religious rule, and relying on alms, or donations, for support.

Ignatius and the early Jesuits believed that the hierarchical Church was in dire need of reform. Some of their greatest struggles were against corruption, venality, and spiritual lassitude within the Catholic Church. Ignatius insistence on an extremely high level of academic preparation for ministry, for instance, was a deliberate response to the relatively poor education of much of the clergy of his time. The Jesuit vow against “ambitioning prelacies” was a deliberate effort to prevent greed for money or power from invading Jesuit circles. As a result, in spite of their loyalty, Ignatius and his successors often tangled with the pope and the Roman Curia. Over the 450 years since its founding, the Society has both been called the papal “elite troops” and been forced into suppression.

The Jesuits’ contributions to the late Renaissance were significant in their roles both as a missionary order and as the first religious order to operate colleges and universities as a principal and distinct ministry. By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, the Jesuits were already operating a network of 74 colleges on three continents. A precursor to liberal education, the Jesuit plan of studies incorporated the classical teachings of Renaissance humanism into the Scholastic structure of Catholic thought.

In addition to teaching faith, Jesuit schools emphasized the study of Latin, Greek, classical literature, poetry, and philosophy as well as non-European languages, sciences and the arts. Furthermore, Jesuit schools encouraged the study of vernacular literature and rhetoric, and thereby became important centers for the training of lawyers and public officials. The Jesuit schools played an important part in winning back to Catholicism a number of European countries which had for a time been predominantly Protestant, notably Poland and Lithuania. Today, Jesuit colleges and universities are located in over one hundred nations around the world. Under the notion that God can be encountered through created things and especially art, they encouraged the use of ceremony and decoration in Catholic ritual and devotion. Perhaps as a result of this appreciation for art coupled with their spiritual practice of “finding God in all things”, many early Jesuits distinguished themselves in the visual and performing arts as well as in music.

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The spread of Jesuit missionaries across the globe is well known. Early missions in Japan resulted in the government granting the Jesuits the feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in 1580. However, this was removed in 1587 due to fears over their growing influence. Francis Xavier, one of the original companions of Loyola, arrived in Goa, in Portuguese India, in 1541 to consider evangelical service in the Indies. In a 1545 letter to John III of Portugal, he requested an Inquisition to be installed in Goa. He died in China after a decade of evangelism in Southern India. Two Jesuit missionaries, Johann Grueber and Albert Dorville, reached Lhasa in Tibet in 1661.

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Jesuit missions in the Americas were very controversial in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal where they were seen as interfering with the proper colonial enterprises of the royal governments. The Jesuits were often the only force standing between the Native Americans and slavery. Together throughout South America but especially in present-day Brazil and Paraguay, they formed Christian Native American city-states, called “reductions” (Spanish Reducciones, Portuguese Reduções). These were societies set up according to an idealized theocratic model. It is partly because the Jesuits, such as Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, protected the indigenous peoples (whom certain Spanish and Portuguese colonizers wanted to enslave) that the Society of Jesus was eventually suppressed.

Jesuit priests such as Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta founded several towns in Brazil in the 16th century, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and were very influential in the pacification, religious conversion and education of Indian nations.

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Jesuit scholars working in foreign missions were very important in studying their languages and strove to produce Latinized grammars and dictionaries. This was done, for instance, for Japanese (Nippo jisho also known as Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam, (Vocabulary of the Japanese Language) a Japanese–Portuguese dictionary written in 1603), for Vietnamese (French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes formalized the Vietnamese alphabet in use today with his 1651 Vietnamese–Portuguese–Latin dictionary Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum), and for Tupi (the main indigenous language of Brazil). Jean François Pons in the 1740s pioneered the study of Sanskrit in the West.

Under Portuguese royal patronage, the order thrived in Goa and until 1759 successfully expanded its activities to education and healthcare. In 1594 they founded the first Roman-style academic institution in the East, St. Paul Jesuit College in Macau. Founded by Alessandro Valignano, it had a great influence on the learning of Eastern languages (Chinese and Japanese) and culture by missionary Jesuits, becoming home to the first Western sinologists such as Matteo Ricci. But, on 17 December 1759, the Marquis of Pombal, Secretary of State in Portugal, expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and Portuguese possessions overseas.

Jesuit missionaries were active among indigenous peoples in New France in North America, many of them compiling dictionaries or glossaries of the First Nations and Native American languages they had learned. For instance, before his death in 1708, Jacques Gravier, vicar general of the Illinois Mission in the Mississippi River valley, compiled a Kaskaskia Illinois–French dictionary, considered the most extensive among works of the missionaries. Extensive documentation was left in the form of The Jesuit Relations, published annually from 1632 until 1673.

The Jesuit China missions of the 16th and 17th centuries introduced Western science and astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. The scientific revolution brought by the Jesuits coincided with a time when scientific innovation had declined in China. Agustín Udías writes,

[The Jesuits] made efforts to translate western mathematical and astronomical works into Chinese and aroused the interest of Chinese scholars in these sciences. They made very extensive astronomical observation and carried out the first modern cartographic work in China. They also learned to appreciate the scientific achievements of this ancient culture and made them known in Europe. Through their correspondence European scientists first learned about the Chinese science and culture.

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On the other side of the coin, the Jesuits were very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge and philosophy to Europe. Confucius’ works were translated into European languages through the agency of Jesuit scholars stationed in China, which is why Kǒng Fūzǐ is known in the West under his Latinized name to this day. Matteo Ricci started to report on the thoughts of Confucius, and Prospero Intorcetta translated the life and works of Confucius into Latin in 1687. Such works had considerable influence on European thinkers of the period, particularly among the Deists and other philosophical groups of the Enlightenment intrigued by the integration of the Confucian system of morality into Catholicism.

The piecemeal suppression of the Jesuits in the Portuguese Empire, France, the Two Sicilies, Malta, Parma and the Spanish Empire, completed by 1767, was a result of a series of political moves in each polity rather than a unified theological act. Monarchies attempting to centralize and secularize political power viewed the Jesuits as being too international, too strongly allied to the papacy, and too autonomous from the monarchs in whose territory they operated. By the brief Dominus ac Redemptor (21 July 1773) Pope Clement XIV entirely suppressed the order. The Jesuits took refuge in non-Catholic nations, particularly in Prussia and Russia, where the order was ignored or formally rejected. The scholarly Jesuit Society of Bollandists moved from Antwerp to Brussels, where they continued their work in the monastery of the Coudenberg; in 1788, the Bollandist Society was suppressed by the Austrian government of the Low Countries.

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The suppression of the order had longstanding economic effects in the Americas, particularly those areas where they had their missions or reductions — outlying areas dominated by indigenous peoples such as Paraguay and Chiloé Archipelago. In Misiones, in modern-day Argentina, their suppression led to the scattering and enslavement of indigenous Guaranís living in the reductions and a long-term decline in the yerba mate industry which the Jesuits had created by domesticating wild mate plants and modernizing production. Their methods were all lost when they were expelled and the industry did not recover until the 20th century. Jesuit vineyards in Peru were auctioned, but new owners did not have the same expertise as the Jesuits, contributing to a production decline in wine and pisco.

The suppression was carried out in all countries except Prussia and Russia, where Catherine the Great had forbidden the papal decree to be executed. Because millions of Catholics (including many Jesuits) lived in the Polish provinces recently annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia, the Society was able to maintain its existence and carry on its work all through the period of suppression. Subsequently, Pope Pius VI granted formal permission for the continuation of the Society in Russia and Poland. As a consequence of that permission, Stanislaus Czerniewicz was elected superior of the Society in 1782. Pope Pius VII had resolved during his captivity in France to restore the Jesuits universally; after his return to Rome he did so with little delay: on 7 August 1814, by the bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, he reversed the suppression of the Order, and subsequently Thaddeus Brzozowski, the Superior in Russia, who had been elected in 1805, acquired universal jurisdiction. Things have been looking up ever since.

There is no such thing as “Jesuit cooking” but you’ll find a fair number of Jesuits willing to share recipes. This blog appears to be defunct http://jesuitrecipes.blogspot.co.id/search?updated-min=2005-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2006-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=8 but it’s fairly typical. Rick Perry’s The Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking is also a good read http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Jesuit-Soupmaking-Soups-Compass/dp/014219610X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443383674&sr=1-1&keywords=jesuit+soupmaking The recipes tend to be a bit standard on the whole, but what makes the book interesting is the interweaving of recipes with abundant tales about travel and cooking. Brother Curry (good name for a cook), makes the point that Ignatius encouraged prayer and reverence in all endeavors, and that being the community cook was a vital way to bring people together in love and fellowship. There are abundant stories in the gospels of Jesus breaking bread with people, many of them at powerfully significant moments.

In line with Brother Curry, I recommend making a hearty soup to celebrate this day. Soups don’t usually need precise recipes. My common habit these days, since I live alone, is to keep a pot simmering on the stove and to bung in whatever comes to hand – meat, pasta, veggies . . . what have you. Here’s a couple of old photos from Buenos Aires, but you get the drift. These days my pot looks a bit more Chinese, but the idea is the same.

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Sep 232015
 

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Today marks the 800th birthday (1215) of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Under Kublai Khan with the conquest of China, the Mongol empire reached its greatest extent. I’m slightly torn about celebrating this anniversary because Kublai was one of the most ruthless, cruel, and brutal leaders in world history, a fact I am rather reluctant to honor. On the other hand, there is no denying the splendor of his rule and the lasting impact of his empire, especially in China. His birth is not being celebrated here in China because of a government policy of ethnic unity which obviates celebrating the Mongols and their legacy, important though it is to the history of China.

I thought perhaps it would be best to talk about Xanadu, or Shangdu, the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty until he moved his capital to what is now Beijing. Xanadu remained his summer capital, noted for its opulence which was described by many authors. Xanadu is located in what is now called Inner Mongolia, 350 kilometers (220 mi) north of Beijing. The old city is roughly square shaped with sides of about 2,200 m. It consists of an “outer city”, and an “inner city” which is also roughly a square layout with sides of about 1,400 m. The inner city contains Kublai Khan’s palace with sides of roughly 550 m and covering an area of around 40% the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The most visible modern-day remnants are the earthen walls though there is also a ground-level, circular brick platform in the center of the inner enclosure. The city, originally named Kaiping (开平, Kāipíng), was designed by Chinese architect Liu Bingzhong from 1252 to 1256. In 1264 it was renamed Shangdu. At its zenith, over 100,000 people lived within its walls.

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In 1872, Steven Bushell, affiliated with the British Legation in Beijing, visited the site and reported that remains of temples, blocks of marble, and tiles were still to be found there. By the 1990s, all these artifacts were completely gone, most likely collected by the inhabitants of the nearby town of Dolon Nor to construct their houses. The artwork is still seen in the walls of some Dolon Nor buildings. Today, only ruins remain, surrounded by a grassy mound that was once the city walls. Since 2002, a restoration effort has been undertaken and in June 2012, Shangdu was made a World Heritage Site.

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Marco Polo visited Shangdu in about 1275. In about 1298–99, he recorded one of the most complete descriptions of the city as it existed. Here is an excerpt:

And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks. The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse’s croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.

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In 1614, the English clergyman Samuel Purchas published Purchas his Pilgrimes – or Relations of the world and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. This book contained a brief description of Shangdu, based on the early description of Marco Polo:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.

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In 1797, according to his own account, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading about Shangdu in Purchas his Pilgrimes, fell asleep, and had an opium-inspired dream. The dream caused him to begin the poem known as ‘Kubla Khan’. Unfortunately Coleridge’s writing was interrupted by an unnamed “man from Porlock” (a nearby village), causing him to forget much of the dream. But his images of Shangdu form one of the best-known poems in the English language.

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 In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

As a small aside, I was once, decades ago, baffled by a clue in The Times crossword – “sacred flower (4)” – for which I had _L_H. Cunningly tricky (short clues always are) !! Next day when I looked up the answer I kicked myself mightily. The word “flower” was not pronounced as if it were a blossom, but as a thing which “flows” – that is, a river. Grrrr. How could I have missed that?

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Kublai Khan must have had great banquets in Xanadu, but we do not have extant recipes. Instead I turn to a famous Mongolian dish, khorkhog. Khorkhog is made by cooking pieces of meat inside a container which also contains hot stones and water, and is often also heated from the outside. To make khorkhog, Mongolians take lamb, mutton or goat meat, and cut it into pieces of convenient size, leaving the bone in. Then the cook puts ten to twenty fist-sized rocks in a fire. When the rocks are hot they are placed with the meat and vegetables plus water in a cooking container such as a metal milk jug. The ingredients should be layered, with the vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and cabbage) on top. The container is capped tightly and placed in a bed of coals for around 90 minutes. When finished, the cook hands out portions of meat along with the hot stones which are tossed from hand to hand and are said to have beneficial properties. Diners usually eat khorkhog with their fingers, although one can use a knife to slice the meat off the bone. Khorkhog is a popular dish in the Mongolian countryside, but usually is not served in restaurants.

Here’s an entertaining tourist video which will challenge your linguistic skills. The titles and most of the dialog are in Russian but you’ll catch some Mongolian as well. Makes me wish (very briefly) that my job prospects in Inner Mongolia had panned out.

Jul 042015
 

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On this date in 1054 a supernova (SN 1054) was first noted by Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and possibly Puebloan observers near the star Zeta Tauri. For several months it remained bright enough to be seen during the day. Its remnants form the Crab Nebula according to modern astronomy, although some debate lingers on this point because the Chinese accounts (relatively accurate, but not entirely interpretable now because of the difficulty of understanding the contemporary Chinese measurement system), place the supernova in a position that is not fully compatible with that of the Crab Nebula.

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The core of the exploding star formed a pulsar, called the Crab Pulsar (or PSR B0531+21). The nebula and the pulsar it contains are the most studied astronomical objects outside the Solar System. It is one of the few Galactic supernovae where the date of the explosion is well known. The two objects are the most luminous in their respective categories. For these reasons, and because of the important role it has repeatedly played in the modern era, SN 1054 is the best known supernova in the history of astronomy.

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The Crab Nebula is easily observed by amateur astronomers thanks to its brightness, and was also catalogued early on by professional astronomers, long before its true nature was understood and identified. When the French astronomer Charles Messier watched for the return of Halley’s Comet in 1758, he confused the nebula for the comet, as he was unaware of the former’s existence. Due to this error, he created his catalog of non-cometary nebulous objects, the Messier Catalogue, to avoid such mistakes in the future. The nebula is cataloged as the first Messier object, or M1.

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The Crab Nebula was identified as the supernova remnant of SN 1054 between 1921 and 1942, at first speculatively (1920s), with some plausibility by 1939, and with virtual certainly by Jan Oort in 1942. In 1921, Carl Otto Lampland was the first to announce that he had seen changes in the structure of the Crab Nebula. This announcement occurred at a time when the nature of the nebulae in the sky was completely unknown. Their nature, size and distance was subject to debate. Observing changes in such objects allows astronomers to determine if their spatial extension is “small” or “large”, in the sense that notable changes in an object as vast as the Milky Way cannot be seen over a small time period, such as a few years, while such changes are possible if the size of the object does not exceed a few light-years. Lampland’s comments were confirmed some weeks later by John Charles Duncan, an astronomer at the Mount Wilson Observatory. He benefited from photographic material obtained with equipment and emulsions which had not changed since 1909, which made the comparison with older snapshots easy, highlighting a general expansion of the cloud. The points were moving away from the center, and did so faster as they got further from the center.

Also in 1921, Knut Lundmark compiled the data for the “guest stars” mentioned in the Chinese chronicles known in the West. He based this on older works, having analyzed various sources such as the Wenxian Tongkao, studied for the first time from an astronomical perspective by Jean-Baptiste Biot in the middle of the 19th century. Lundmark gives a list of 60 suspected novae, the generic term for a stellar explosion, in fact covering two defined phenomena, novae and supernovae. In 1928, Edwin Hubble was the first to note that the changing aspect of the Crab Nebula, which was growing bigger in size, suggests that it is the remains of a stellar explosion. He realized that the apparent speed of change in its size signifies that the explosion which it comes from occurred only nine centuries ago, which puts the date of the explosion in the period covered by Lundmark’s compilation. He also noted that the only possible nova in the region of the Taurus constellation (where the cloud is located) is that of 1054, whose age is estimated to correspond to an explosion dating from the start of the second millennium. Hubble therefore deduced that this cloud was the remains of the explosion which was observed by Chinese astronomers.

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In Chinese annals stars which appeared temporarily in the sky were generically called “guest stars” (kè xīng 客星) by Chinese astronomers. The guest star of 1054 occurred during the reign of the Emperor Renzong of the Song dynasty (960–1279). The relevant year is recorded in Chinese documents as “the first year of the Zhihe era”. Zhihe was an era name used during the reign of Emperor Renzong, and corresponds to the years 1054–1056 C.E., so the first year of the Zhihe era corresponds to the year 1054.

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Some of the Chinese accounts are well preserved and detailed. The oldest and most detailed accounts are from Song Huiyao and Song Shi, historiographical works of which the extant text was redacted perhaps within a few decades of the event. There are also some later records, redacted in the 13th century, which are not necessarily independent of the older ones. Three accounts are apparently related because they describe the angular distance from the guest star to Zeta Tauri as “perhaps several inches away.”, but they are in apparent disagreement about the date of appearance of the star. The older two mention the day jichou 己丑, which corresponds, in the context where they are cited, to 4 July.

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The location of the guest star as “to the south-east of Tianguan, perhaps several inches away” has perplexed modern astronomers, because the Crab Nebula is not situated in the south-east, but to the north-west of Zeta Tauri.

The duration of visibility is explicitly mentioned in chapter 12 of Song Shi, and slightly less accurately, in the Song Huiyao. The last sighting was on 6 April 1056, after a total period of visibility of 642 days. This duration is supported by the Song Shi. According to the Song Huiyao the visibility of the guest star was for only 23 days, but this is after mentioning visibility during daylight. This period of 23 days applies in all likelihood solely to visibility during the day.

The Song Huiyao recounts the observation of the guest star, by focusing on the astronomical aspect, but gives more important information relating to the visibility of the star, by day and by night.

Zhihe era, first year, seventh lunar month, 22nd day. […] Yang Weide declared: “I humbly observe that a guest star has appeared; above the star there is a feeble yellow glimmer. If one examines the divination regarding the Emperor, the interpretation [of the presence of this guest star] is the following: The fact that the star has not overrun Bi and that its brightness must represent a person of great value. I demand that the Office of Historiography is informed of this.” All officials congratulated the Emperor, who ordered his congratulations be [back] forwarded to the Office of Historiography. First year of the era of Jiayou, third lunar month, the director of the Astronomical Office said “The guest star has disappeared, which means the departure of the host [that it represents].” Previously, during the first year of the Zhihe era, during the fifth lunar month, it had appeared at dawn, in the direction of the east, under the watch of Tiānguān (天關, Zeta Tauri). It had been seen in daylight, like Venus. It had rays stemming in all directions, and its color was reddish white. Altogether visible for 23 days.

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I gave my recipe for crab sandwiches here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/tony-hancock/ which you could make today. But since 4th July is a big day for outdoor cooking in the U.S., I recommend a traditional crab boil for celebrating the Crab Nebula. It is simplicity itself. You will need a galvanized bucket or tub (well scrubbed) and a good campfire of hot coals – I did mine in my fire pit in my garden in New York. The essentials are that you bring salted water in the tub to the boil over the fire and then add live crabs, corn on the cob, small new potatoes (unpeeled), and crab boil seasoning of your choice (such as Old Bay or Zatarain’s). In Louisiana they sometimes also add andouilli sausage, onions and/or crayfish – basically your choice. Add what you want.

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Bring the water back to the boil and cook for 10 minutes, or until the crabs are bright red. Strain off the water and dump the boil mix on to newspaper on your picnic table, and dig in. You can use hammers or nutcrackers for the tricky bits of the crabs. Eat everything with your fingers using nut picks, or similar, to dig out the crab meat from inaccessible places.. The boil seasoning gets all over your hands and, therefore seasons the meat and vegetables as you eat. I’m getting hungry (and missing Louisiana) !!

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Jun 182015
 

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Five monks from Canterbury reported to the abbey’s chronicler, Gervase, that shortly after sunset on June 18, 1178, they saw “the upper horn [of the moon] split in two”. Furthermore, Gervase writes:

From the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the Moon which was below writhed, as it were in anxiety, and to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw it with their own eyes, the Moon throbbed like a wounded snake. Afterwards it resumed its proper state. This phenomenon was repeated a dozen times or more, the flame assuming various twisting shapes at random and then returning to normal. Then, after these transformations, the Moon from horn to horn, that is along its whole length, took on a blackish appearance.

In 1976, the geologist Jack B. Hartung proposed that this described the formation of the moon crater Giordano Bruno.

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Giordano Bruno is a 22 km lunar impact crater on the far side of the Moon, just beyond the northeastern limb. At this location it lies in an area that can be viewed during a favorable libration (oscillation), although at such times the area is viewed from the side and not much detail can be seen. It lies between the craters Harkhebi to the northwest and Szilard to the southeast.

When viewed from orbit, Giordano Bruno is at the center of a symmetrical ray system of ejecta that has a higher albedo (reflected light) than the surrounding surface. The ray material extends for over 150 kilometers and has not been significantly darkened by space erosion. Some of the ejecta appears to extend as far as the crater Boss, over 300 km to the northwest. The outer rim of the crater is especially bright, compared to its surroundings. To all appearances this is a young formation that was created in the relatively recent past, geologically speaking. The actual age is unknown, but is estimated to be less than 350 million years.

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This feature was named after the Italian mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, Giordano Bruno. who is celebrated for his cosmological theories, which went even further than the then-novel Copernican model. He proposed that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own planets and raised the possibility that these planets could even foster life of their own. He also believed that the universe is infinite and could, therefore, have no celestial body at its “center.”

Beginning in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges including denial of several core Catholic doctrines (including the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and Transubstantiation). Bruno’s pantheism was also a matter of grave concern. The Inquisition found him guilty, and in 1600 he was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori.

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Modern theories predict that a (conjectural) asteroid or comet impact on the Moon would cause a plume of molten matter rising up from the surface, which is consistent with the monks’ description. In addition, the location recorded fits in well with the crater’s location. Additional evidence of Giordano Bruno’s youth is its spectacular ray system: because micrometeorites constantly rain down, they kick up enough dust to quickly (in geological terms) erode a ray system, so it can be reasonably hypothesized that Giordano Bruno was formed during the span of human history, perhaps in June 1178.

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However, the question of the crater’s age is not that simple. The impact creating the 22-km-wide crater would have kicked up 10 million tons of debris, triggering a week-long, blizzard-like meteor storm on Earth – yet no accounts of such a noteworthy storm of unprecedented intensity are found in any known historical records, including the European, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean astronomical archives. This discrepancy is a major objection to the theory that Giordano Bruno was formed at that time.

This raises the question of what the monks saw. An alternative theory holds that the monks just happened to be in the right place at the right time to see an exploding meteor coming at them and aligned with the Moon. This would explain why the monks were the only people known to have witnessed the event; such an alignment would only be observable from a specific spot on the Earth’s surface.

To celebrate the monks’ sighting, whatever it was, I give you a two-fer.

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First, here is a recipe for a cake that involves creating erupting craters on the moon. It looks to be lots of fun for kids and adults although it is not my kind of thing.

http://www.learnplayimagine.com/2014/05/erupting-moon-cake-recipe.html

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Second, there are Chinese moon cakes. Moon cake (月饼 yuè bĭng) is a Chinese bakery product eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, although they can be eaten year round. The festival is traditionally for lunar worship and moon watching, although in modern times it is mostly a family holiday. Moon cakes are offered between friends or on family gatherings while celebrating the festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the four most important Chinese festivals.

Typical moon cakes are round pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick. A rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain whole yolks from salted duck eggs. Many types of fillings can be found in traditional moon cakes according to the region.

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Lotus seed paste (蓮蓉, lían róng) is generally thought of as the original and most luxurious moon cake filling, but due to the high price of lotus paste, white kidney bean paste is sometimes used as a filler. Sweet bean paste (豆沙, dòu shā) made from azuki beans, is the most common worldwide, but there are also bean pastes made from mung beans, as well as black beans. Jujube paste (棗泥, zǎo ní) is sweet paste is made from the ripe fruits of the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red in color, a little fruity/smoky in flavor, and slightly sour in taste. Depending on the quality of the paste, jujube paste may be confused with red bean paste, which is sometimes used as a filler.

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The crust varies greatly from region to region as well. In Yunnan, where I live, the crust is made from a mix of flours including rice flour, wheat flour, and buckwheat flour.

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The cakes are imprinted with characters for “longevity” or “harmony”, as well as the name of the bakery and the filling inside. Imprints of the moon, the Lady Chang’e (moon goddess) on the moon, flowers, vines, or a rabbit (symbol of the moon) may surround the characters for additional decoration. Usually you eat them in wedges with green tea or a favorite.  Pu-er is the normal tea drunk here in Yunnan.