Apr 162017

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492312589&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

Displaying colored chicken’s eggs has been an Easter custom for a very long time; just exactly how long is a matter of debate. Decorating eggs in general is an ancient art. Furthermore, eggs have been an enduring symbol of death and rebirth in numerous Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years. Thus, their association with Easter seems perfectly natural. What intrigues me is how diverse the traditions are these days.

There seems to me to be some merit in the speculation that boiled eggs were eaten at Easter for practical reasons. In the Middle Ages eggs were forbidden during the Lenten fast in some traditions, but, being Spring time, chickens did not stop laying. You can keep eggs for quite some time without spoilage, but not forever. Three weeks is about the limit. Boiling them allows you to keep them a little longer, and then at Easter, when the Lenten fast is over, they can be eaten. Boiling them with certain natural dye materials, such as onion skins or some tree barks, adds a whole new dimension – including additional decoration.

Let me just interject a quick note here about refrigerating versus not refrigerating fresh eggs. People in the US refrigerate EVERYTHING, including many items that should NOT be refrigerated. Chocolate, bread, and tomatoes, for example, will degrade much more quickly if refrigerated – but people do it anyway (not me!!). Eggs are complicated. Generally they are refrigerated in the US, but not in Europe. There is a reason for the difference. Eggs in the US are scrupulously washed before storage, and the washing removes a thin protective film which they acquire from the hen in the laying process, making the shells porous and open to invasion by harmful bacteria. So after washing they must be refrigerated. Eggs in Europe are not washed, so the protective film is preserved and they can be safely stored at room temperature. I prefer room temperature eggs for cooking under most circumstances, so when I lived in the US I had to take them out of the refrigerator some time before using them.  Here in Italy there is no need – likewise when I lived in Argentina and China. Trying to change habits in the US is almost certainly a lost cause.

There are so many different ways to decorate eggs that it would take me a fortnight to enumerate them all. One simple, very traditional, way is to affix a pattern to the eggs before boiling them in colored water so that the stain penetrates only the bare surface of the eggs. Pace eggs in the north of England are made this way (“pace” being a dialect variant of “pesach” – Aramaic for Passover/Easter, giving the common Romance words – via Latin (pascha) – for Easter such as Pascua, Pasqua, or Pâques).  Pace egging was a longstanding tradition in rural England involving a death and resurrection play and a begging song.  This traditional version comes from Burscough in Lancashire:


In eastern European countries, notably, Ukraine, a tradition of dyeing eggs in highly developed patterns using a wax-resist method (batik) has evolved into an art form that is still popular, with many regional variations.

Similar traditions have evolved throughout Mediterranean and Slavic cultures, and sometimes displaying them on Easter “trees”.

There is also a rather rarer tradition throughout Europe of carving lacey patterns into the uncolored shells.  This is incredibly delicate work that requires years of practice.

Chocolate eggs are a relative newcomer to the Easter scene; not possible until the perfection of techniques for making solid chocolate in the 19th century, allied with industrial processes for making hollow shapes.

Of course you can make decorative or artistic egg-shaped forms for Easter out of any material from marzipan to gold.

There’s probably no need to extol the enormous versatility of the chicken egg. Instead I’ll showcase a dish I made several years ago based on a 14th century recipe: poached egg with a saffron and ginger flavored Hollandaise. You should be able to work it out without a detailed recipe from me.

For Easter breakfast or brunch you can whip up a frittata, tortilla, omelet, or quiche is plain eggs are too bland for you. Later you can have a baked egg custard, pancake, flan, or egg-anything-you want. Let’s instead consider the virtues of eggs other than chicken eggs.

Duck. Duck eggs are not easy to find in the West, but in Chinese markets they are as common as chicken eggs and can be used in much the same way. I bought them all the time in Yunnan. They are a little more flavorful than chicken eggs – perhaps earthier.

Quail. Once quail eggs were hard to find in the West, but I have no trouble getting them in northern Italy now. They’re a little fiddly to cook with.  You can boil them, but peeling them is a chore. I usually fry them, but you’ll need quite a few if you are making a meal of them !!! In China they have special utensils for frying them in a row on a stick. This is a great street snack. Usually I chose the option of dusting them with a hot spicy powder. The fun is in the size more than the taste. They’re not so different from chicken eggs in that regard.

Goose. The goose egg is larger than duck or chicken eggs and is decidedly more robust in flavor. They’re hard to find and I don’t care to go to the trouble these days because I’m not a fan of the taste.

Ostrich. I’ve never seen ostrich eggs for sale outside of Africa, and even there they are not common. Ostriches don’t produce very many eggs and breeders generally use them to make more ostriches. They are gigantic with an exceedingly tough shell that takes a hammer, or the like, to break into. One egg will serve more than one person – scrambled or made into an omelet. They are delicious if you can ever get hold of one that is fresh enough to eat.

Aug 282015


Today is the birthday (1749) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, scientist, and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and color; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him are extant. A literary celebrity by the age of 25, Goethe was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, in 1782 after first taking up residence there in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. He was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe served as a member of the Duke’s privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar’s botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace, which in 1998 were together designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After returning from a tour of Italy in 1788, his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller’s death in 1805. During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust. His conversations and various common undertakings throughout the 1790s with Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and August and Friedrich Schlegel have, in later years, been collectively termed Weimar Classicism.

I’m going to work on my usual principle of assuming you either know Goethe or you don’t, so dribbling on about his writings is going to bore you or annoy you (possibly both). Instead I will do two things. First, I present a few of potentially thousands of poignant quotes. Second, I give you a brief outline of his theory of color which has had a major impact on philosophers, psychologists, and artists even though it radically conflicts with Newton and physical science.


   One must be something in order to do something.

I have found a paper of mine among some others in which I call architecture ‘petrified music.’ Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.

The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it…but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.

Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though it were his own.

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit — this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.

 A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

In The Theory of Colors (original German title Zur Farbenlehre) Goethe lays out his views on the nature of colors and how they are perceived by humans. Published in 1810, it contains detailed descriptions of phenomena such as colored shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. The work originated in Goethe’s occupation with painting and had a major influence on painters (e.g. Philipp Otto Runge, J. M. W. Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Wassily Kandinsky). Although rejected by mainstream physics it influenced philosophers and certain physicists including Thomas Johann Seebeck, Arthur Schopenhauer (On Vision and Colors), Hermann von Helmholtz, Rudolf Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Mitchell Feigenbaum.


Goethe’s book provides a catalogue of how color is perceived in a wide variety of circumstances, and considers Isaac Newton’s observations to be special cases. Unlike Newton, Goethe’s concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of color, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human color perception as presented by Goethe—a subject analyzed at length by Wittgenstein in his exegesis of Goethe in Remarks on Colour.

In Goethe’s time, it was generally acknowledged that, as Isaac Newton had shown in his Opticks in 1704, colorless (white) light is split up into its component colors when directed through a prism. As Goethe notes Louis Bertrand Castel had already published a criticism of Newton’s spectral description of prismatic color in 1740 in which he observed that the sequence of colors split by a prism depended on the distance from the prism — and that Newton was looking at a special case.


in Between Light and Eye Alex Kentsis says:

Whereas Newton observed the colour spectrum cast on a wall at a fixed distance away from the prism, Goethe observed the cast spectrum on a white card which was progressively moved away from the prism… As the card was moved away, the projected image elongated, gradually assuming an elliptical shape, and the coloured images became larger, finally merging at the centre to produce green. Moving the card farther led to the increase in the size of the image, until finally the spectrum described by Newton in the Opticks was produced… The image cast by the refracted beam was not fixed, but rather developed with increasing distance from the prism. Consequently, Goethe saw the particular distance chosen by Newton to prove the second proposition of the Opticks as capriciously imposed.


Unlike his contemporaries, Goethe didn’t see darkness as an absence of light, but rather as polar to and interacting with light; color resulted from this interaction of light and shadow. For Goethe, light is “the simplest most undivided most homogenous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness” Based on his experiments with turbid media, Goethe characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. Rudolf Steiner, the science editor for the Kurschner edition of Goethe’s works, gave the following analogy:

Modern natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south pole of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases color arises.

Goethe says,

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

Goethe’s studies of color began with experiments which examined the effects of turbid media, such as air, dust, and moisture on the perception of light and dark. The poet observed that light seen through a turbid medium appears yellow, and darkness seen through an illuminated medium appears blue.

The highest degree of light, such as that of the sun… is for the most part colourless. This light, however, seen through a medium but very slightly thickened, appears to us yellow. If the density of such a medium be increased, or if its volume become greater, we shall see the light gradually assume a yellow-red hue, which at last deepens to a ruby colour. If on the other hand darkness is seen through a semi-transparent medium, which is itself illumined by a light striking on it, a blue colour appears: this becomes lighter and paler as the density of the medium is increased, but on the contrary appears darker and deeper the more transparent the medium becomes: in the least degree of dimness short of absolute transparence, always supposing a perfectly colourless medium, this deep blue approaches the most beautiful violet.

He then proceeds with numerous experiments, systematically observing the effects of rarefied media such as dust, air, and moisture on the perception of color.


When viewed through a prism, the orientation of a light–dark boundary with respect to the prism’s axis is significant. With white above a dark boundary, we observe the light extending a blue-violet edge into the dark area; whereas dark above a light boundary results in a red-yellow edge extending into the light area. Goethe was intrigued by this difference. He felt that this arising of color at light–dark boundaries was fundamental to the creation of the spectrum (which he considered to be a compound phenomenon). Since the color phenomenon relies on the adjacency of light and dark, there are two ways to produce a spectrum: with a light beam in a dark room, and with a dark beam (i.e., a shadow) in a light room.

Goethe recorded the sequence of colors projected at various distances from a prism for both cases. In both cases, he found that the yellow and blue edges remain closest to the side which is light, and red and violet edges remain closest to the side which is dark. At a certain distance, these edges overlap—and we obtain Newton’s spectrum. When these edges overlap in a light spectrum, green results; when they overlap in a dark spectrum, magenta results.

With a light spectrum (i.e. a shaft of light in a surrounding darkness), we find yellow-red colours along the top edge, and blue-violet colours along the bottom edge. The spectrum with green in the middle arises only where the blue-violet edges overlap the yellow-red edges.

With a dark spectrum (i.e., a shadow surrounded by light), we find violet-blue along the top edge, and red-yellow along the bottom edge — and where these edges overlap, we find (extraspectral) magenta.

When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.


Goethe proposed a symmetric color wheel. He writes,

The chromatic circle… [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order… for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green; and vice versa: thus… all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

In the same way that light and dark spectra yielded green from the mixture of blue and yellow — Goethe completed his color wheel by recognizing the importance of magenta. For Newton, only spectral colors could count as fundamental. By contrast, Goethe’s more empirical approach led him to recognize the essential role of magenta in a complete color circle, a role that it still has in all modern color systems.


Goethe also included aesthetic qualities in his color wheel, under the title of “allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour” (Allegorischer, symbolischer, mystischer Gebrauch der Farbe), establishing a kind of color psychology. He associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, and violet to the “unnecessary”. These six qualities were assigned to four categories of human cognition, the rational (Vernunft) to the beautiful and the noble (red and orange), the intellectual (Verstand) to the good and the useful (yellow and green), the sensual (Sinnlichkeit) to the useful and the common (green and blue) and, closing the circle, imagination (Phantasie) to both the unnecessary and the beautiful (purple and red).

In simple terms, Newton’s understanding of color was devoid of interest in color as it is perceived by humans whereas Goethe’s studies embraced it. This intrigues me because I have often written on what Max Weber calls the “disenchantment of the world” induced by Enlightenment scientific thinking whereby humans and human perception are subtracted from the process. Physical science is essentially inhuman.

Goethe was initially induced to occupy himself with the study of color by the questions of hue in painting. “During his first journey to Italy (1786-88), he noticed that artists were able to enunciate rules for virtually all the elements of painting and drawing except color and coloring. In the years 1786—88, Goethe began investigating whether one could ascertain rules to govern the artistic use of color.”


After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, Goethe’s theory became widely adopted by the art world – especially among the Pre-Raphaelites. J. M. W. Turner studied it comprehensively and referenced it in the titles of several paintings. Wassily Kandinsky considered it “one of the most important works.”


Goethe spent much of his professional life in Weimar but his home town was Frankfurt which has many culinary specialties. Obviously this includes the Frankfurt sausage, forebear of the hot dog. But I will pass over them because I have covered hot dogs quite enough, and, in any case, hot dogs bear only a superficial resemblance to the original. Rather, I will talk about Grüne Soße or Grüne Sosse (Green Sauce) which reputedly was created in Frankfurt, and, according to his mother, was Goethe’s favorite. The Frankfurt-style ( where it is sometimes called “Grie Soß” or “Grie Soss”) is made from hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt, sour cream, and generous amounts of seven fresh herbs, namely borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley, and salad burnet. Variants, often due to seasonal availability, include dill, shallots, lovage, lemon balm, and even spinach. In more frugal times, daisy leaves, broad plantain leaves, and dandelion leaves were also used.. In Grüne Soße, the eggs are hard-boiled, then sieved or pureed before being mixed with sour cream to form the creamy base of the sauce. The fresh chopped herbs are then added. Some variations use buttermilk, quark, or yogurt instead of sour cream.

The sauce is served cold with peeled boiled potatoes as an accompaniment to either hard-boiled eggs or roast beef brisket. It may also be served with cooked fish or roast beef, or as a side dish to barbecue. A local schnitzel specialty, called Frankfurter Schnitzel, is always served with green sauce, along with apple cider (Apfelwein) as a traditional accompanying drink.

The following is merely one of many variations. Use the traditional seven herbs or vary to suit yourself.


Grüne Soße


2 cups packed parsley
1 ½ cups packed watercress
1 cup finely chopped chives
1 cup packed sorrel
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. walnut oil
1 hard-boiled egg
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it is smooth.

Jul 062015


Today is the birthday (1887) of Marc Zakharovich Chagall, Russian-French artist. He is well known as a Jewish artist (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). His paintings reflect his childhood in Vitebsk (now in Belarus), and, among other things, inspired the tragic-comic musical Fiddler on the Roof.


Chagall was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. Using stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.


Before World War I, he traveled between St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his memories of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1922.

He had two basic reputations: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris, where he embraced and combined Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, in which his own vision was a major factor in the development of Surrealism.” Most emphatically Chagall’s work is about color – using a limited palate to create startling colorful visions “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is”.

According to art historian Raymond Cogniat, in all Chagall’s work during all stages of his life, it was his colors which attracted and captured the viewer’s attention. During his earlier years his range was limited by his emphasis on form and his pictures never gave the impression of painted drawings. He adds, “The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes… they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones… His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms.” He was able to convey striking images using only two or three colors. Cogniat writes, “Chagall is unrivalled in this ability to give a vivid impression of explosive movement with the simplest use of colors…” Throughout his life his colors created a “vibrant atmosphere” which was based on “his own personal vision.”

Chagall’s work is, indeed, highly personal and idiosyncratic; impossible to classify even though many try. Here’s a gallery – mostly about color. I used to have prints of some of these on my walls.

mc13 mc12 mc10 mc9 mc8 mc6 mc2

Lazanki is a popular dish in Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk, and in Belarus in general (as well as Poland). Lazanki arrived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-16th century when Bona Sforza, Italian wife of King Sigismund I the Old, brought high Italian cuisine to the country. Unlike most Italian dishes in these parts of Europe, lazanki has survived into the 21st century, although the long and cultural history of the dish has been largely forgotten.

Lazanki consists of pieces of dough made from wheat, buckwheat, or rye flour. Basically speaking, Belarusian lazanki and Italian lasagna come from the same roots. Traditionally they are squares or triangles made from flattened tough dough, which are boiled and then served with fried lard and onions on top. During Lent, Belarusians once put ground poppy seeds or mashed berries into the dough. Lazanki were also baked in pots together with meat or cabbage and stewed with sour cream. My preferred method.





rye or wheat flour
salt and sugar to taste
vegetable oil


70g smoked-cooked pork brisket
100g semi-smoked sausages (“hunter’s sausages”)
1 medium-sized onion
vegetable oil
50-70g cream or sour cream
50g grated hard cheese



The dough for lazanki is very much the same as for most pasta (see Hints tab). Sift flour on to a work surface, make a hollow it in, add salt and sugar, and a little bit of vegetable oil for elasticity. Pour water on the flour slowly and mix with your hands until you have a ball that is not sticky and can be kneaded. Knead the dough until it gets hard and flexible.

Roll out the dough to about 1-1.5mm thick, then cut it into triangles or diamonds. Let it dry a bit at room temperature.

Put the lazanki in salted boiling water for 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Dice the pork brisket and sauté it in a dry, heavy skillet until it browns and the fat melts. Add finely chopped onions and keep sautéing them until they brown to a golden color. Add the sausages in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.

When the filling is ready, add the boiled lazanki with a small amount of water from the pan it was cooked in. Add the cream and cheese. Keep stirring the mix constantly while it is cooking. When the cheese becomes thick, remove the pan from the heat. You can serve it on the table straight from the pan, or in a heated serving dish garnished with green herbs. Dill is a good option.

Lazanki can also be baked (a better way, I think, but longer). Take a ceramic pot, put in the boiled lazanki and the filling one layer after another like making lasagna Add the cream and cheese and put it in the oven at 350°F until it is golden on top.