May 042016
 

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Today is one of several days honoring Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, an early Christian saint and the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is remembered and honored in most Christian denominations, although on different feast days, for her Christian virtues, particularly the suffering caused by her husband’s adultery, and her prayerful life dedicated to the reformation of her son, who wrote extensively of her pious acts and his life with her in his Confessions. Popular Christian legend tells of Saint Monica weeping every night for her son Augustine.

Most of what we know about Monica comes directly from Augustine, which is far better information than is obtained from contemporary martyrologies, but personal information is, nonetheless, sketchy and conjectural. It is, for example, assumed that she was born in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her name is a Berber name, not popular in Europe until after her death, so on that basis alone she is conjectured to have been Berber. She was married early in life to Patricius, a Roman pagan, who held an official position in Tagaste. Patricius had a violent temper and appears to have been generally dissolute. Monica’s alms, deeds, and prayer habits annoyed Patricius, but it is said that he always held her in respect. Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius and daughter Perpetua. She was unable to gain approval to baptize them, and grieved heavily when Augustine fell ill. In her distress she asked Patricius to allow Augustine to be baptized. He agreed, then withdrew this consent when the boy recovered. Monica’s joy and relief at Augustine’s recovery turned to anxiety as he misspent his renewed life being wayward and, as he himself tells us, lazy. He was finally sent to school at Madauros. He was 17 and studying rhetoric in Carthage when Patricius died.

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Augustine become a Manichaean (strong rival to Christianity) in Carthage. When he returned home he shared his views regarding Manichaeism, Monica drove him away. However, she is said to have experienced a vision that convinced her to reconcile with him. At this time she visited an unnamed bishop who consoled her with the now famous words, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” Monica followed her son to Rome, where he had gone secretly. When she arrived he had already gone to Milan and she followed him there. Here she found Ambrose and through him she ultimately saw Augustine convert to Christianity after 17 years of resistance.

In Confessions, Augustine wrote of a peculiar practice of his mother in which she “brought to certain oratories, erected in the memory of the saints, offerings of porridge, bread, water and wine.” When she moved to Milan, the bishop Ambrose forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink”. So, Augustine wrote of her:

In place of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of purer petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor – so that the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated in those places where, after the example of his passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.

Mother and son spent 6 months together at Rus Cassiciacum (present-day Cassago Brianza) after which Augustine was baptized in the church of St. John the Baptist in Milan. Africa claimed them, however, and they set out on their journey, stopping at Civitavecchia and at Ostia. Monica died on the journey and Augustine’s grief inspired large sections of his Confessions.

Saint Monica was buried at Ostia, and at first seems to have been almost forgotten, though her body was removed during the 6th century to a hidden crypt in the church of Santa Aurea in Ostia. Monica was buried near the tomb of St. Aurea of Ostia, but was later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome.

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Anicius Auchenius Bassus wrote Monica’s funerary epitaph, which survived in ancient manuscripts. The actual stone on which it was written was rediscovered in the summer of 1945 in the church of Santa Aurea. The fragment was discovered after two boys were digging a hole to plant a football post in the courtyard beside Santa Aurea.

The translation reads:

Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you teach the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.

It was not until the 13th century, however, that the cult of St. Monica began to spread and a feast in her honor was kept on 4th May. In 1430 Pope Martin V ordered the relics to be brought to Rome. Many miracles are reported to have occurred on the way, and the cult of St. Monica was definitively established. Later the archbishop of Rouen, Guillaume d’Estouteville, built a church in Rome in honor of St. Augustine, the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, and deposited the relics of St. Monica in a chapel to the left of the high altar. The Office of St. Monica, however, does not seem to have found a place in the Roman Breviary before the 16th century.

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The city of Santa Monica, California, is named after Monica. A legend says that in the 18th century Father Juan Crespí named a local dripping spring Las Lagrimas de Santa Monica (“Saint Monica’s Tears”) (today known as the Serra Springs) that was reminiscent of the tears that Saint Monica shed over her son’s early impiety. As recorded in his diary, however, Crespí actually named the place San Gregorio. What is known for certain is that by the 1820s, the name Santa Monica was in use and its first official mention occurred in 1827 in the form of a grazing permit. There is a statue of Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park by sculptor Eugene Morahan, completed in 1934.

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Couscous is a fitting dish for Saint Monica both because it is a Berber/Algerian staple, probably from antiquity, and because it is the kind of food Monica could well have given to the poor. I discussed the general preparation of couscous here:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jean-dubuffet/

Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a Taseksut in Berber, a كِسْكَاس kiskas in Arabic or a couscoussier in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big, the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archaeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussier was made from organic materials that could not survive extended exposure to the elements. I suggest a simple dish of couscous and vegetables seasoned with cumin and garlic to taste. My preference is to cook the couscous separately from the vegetables in a steamer, but you can be traditional and boil them with spices in the base of your steamer. I usually sauté the spices gently over medium heat in a heavy skillet in a little extra virgin olive oil, then add the vegetables to cook through. Nowadays Algerians use whatever vegetables are to hand, including zucchini and tomatoes, but before the European exploration of the Americas vegetables would have been more limited – carrots, peas, broccoli, etc.

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The couscous that is sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. It is typically prepared by adding 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock to each measure of couscous then leaving covered tightly for about 5 minutes. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, or dried pasta, beans, or grains.

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In Algeria and Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal, or just by itself, as a delicacy called “seffa”. The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert is served with milk perfumed with orange flower water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.

Jul 312015
 

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Today is the birthday (1901) of Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet, French painter and sculptor best known for founding the art movement Art Brut, and for the collection of works—Collection de l’art brut—that this movement spawned. Dubuffet enjoyed a prolific art career, both in France and in the United States.

Dubuffet was born in Le Havre to a family of wholesale wine merchants. He moved to Paris in 1918 to study painting at the Académie Julian, becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger. Six months later, upon finding academic training to be distasteful, he left the Académie to study independently. During this time, Dubuffet developed many other interests, including music, poetry, and the study of ancient and modern languages. Dubuffet also traveled to Italy and Brazil, and upon returning to Le Havre in 1925, he married for the first time and went on to start a small wine business in Paris. He took up painting again in 1934 when he made a large series of portraits in which he emphasized the vogues in art history. But again he stopped, developing his wine business at Bercy during the German Occupation of France.

In 1942, Dubuffet decided to devote himself again to art. He often chose subjects for his works from everyday life, such as people sitting in the Paris Métro or walking in the country. Dubuffet painted with strong, unbroken colors, recalling the palette of Fauvism, as well as the Brucke painters, with their juxtaposing and discordant patches of color. Many of his works featured an individual or individuals placed in a very cramped space, which had a distinct psychological impact on viewers. His first solo show came in October 1944, at the Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris. This marked Dubuffet’s third attempt to become an established artist.

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In 1945, Dubuffet attended and was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Jean Fautrier’s paintings in which he saw art which he believed expressed directly and purely the depth of a person. Emulating Fautrier, Dubuffet started to use thick oil paint mixed with materials such as mud, sand, coal dust, pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, gravel, cement, and tar. This allowed him to abandon the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush; instead, Dubuffet created a paste into which he could add physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. The impasto technique of mixing and applying paint was best manifested in Dubuffet’s series ‘Hautes Pâtes’ or Thick Impastos, which he exhibited at his second major exhibition, entitled Microbolus Macadam & Cie/Hautes Pâtes in 1946 at the Galérie René Drouin. His use of crude materials and style incited a significant backlash from critics, who accused Dubuffet of ‘anarchy’ and ‘scraping the dustbin’. He did receive some positive feedback as well—Clement Greenberg took notice of Dubuffet’s work and wrote that ‘from a distance, Dubuffet seems the most original painter to have come out of the School of Paris since Miro…’ Greenberg went on to say that ‘Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade.’

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After 1946, Dubuffet started a series of portraits, with his friends Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Jean Paulhan and Pierre Matisse serving as ‘models’. He painted these portraits in the same thick materials, and in a manner deliberately anti-psychological and anti-personal. A few years later he approached the surrealist group in 1948, then the College of Pataphysique in 1954. He was friendly with the French playwright, actor and theater director Antonin Artaud, he admired and supported the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline and was strongly connected with the artistic circle around the surrealist André Masson. In 1944 he started an important relationship with the resistance-fighter and French writer, publisher, Jean Paulhan who was also fighting against ‘intellectual terrorism’, as he called it.

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Dubuffet achieved very rapid success in the U.S. art market, largely due to his inclusion in the Pierre Matisse exhibition in 1946. Matisse was an influential dealer of contemporary European Art in the U.S. and was known for strongly supporting the School of Paris artists. Dubuffet’s work was placed among the likes of Picasso, Braque, and Rouault at the gallery exhibit, and he was only one of two young artists to be honored in this manner. A Newsweek article dubbed Dubuffet as the ‘darling of Parisian avant-garde circles,’ and Greenberg wrote positively about Dubuffet’s three canvasses in a review of the exhibit. His reception in the U.S. was very closely linked to and dependent upon the New York art world’s desire to create its own avant-garde.

Between 1945 and 1947, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria—a French colony at the time—in order to find further artistic inspiration. In this sense, Dubuffet is very similar to other artists such as Delacroix, Matisse, and Fromentin. However, the art that Dubuffet produced while he was there was very specific insofar as it recalled Post-War French ethnography in light of decolonization. In June 1948, Dubuffet, along with Jean Paulhan, Andre Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche, officially established La Compagnie de l’art brut in Paris. This association was dedicated to the discovery, documentation and exhibition of art brut. Dubuffet later amassed his own collection of this art, including artists such as Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli. This collection is now housed at the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne.

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Influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term art brut ( “raw art”) for art produced by non-professionals working outside conventional aesthetic norms, such as art by psychiatric patients, prisoners, and children. Dubuffet felt that the simple life of the everyday human being contained more art and poetry than did academic art, or great painting. He found the latter to be isolating, mundane, and pretentious, and wrote in his Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre that his aim was

. . . not the mere gratification of a handful of specialists, but rather the man in the street when he comes home from work….it is the man in the street whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.

To that end, Dubuffet began to search for an art form in which everyone could participate and by which everyone could be entertained. He sought to create an art as free from intellectual concerns as Art Brut, and as a result, his work often appears primitive and childlike. His form is often compared to wall scratchings and children’s art. Nonetheless, Dubuffet appeared to be quite erudite when it came to writing about his own work. According to prominent art critic Hilton Kramer, “There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naive visionary.”

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From 1962 he produced a series of works in which he limited himself to the colors red, white, black, and blue. Towards the end of the 1960s he turned increasingly to sculpture, producing works in polystyrene which he then painted with vinyl paint.

In late 1960–1961, Dubuffet began experimenting with music and sound and made several recordings with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA. The same period he started making sculpture, but in a very not-sculptural way. As his medium he preferred to use the ordinary materials as papier-mâché and for all the light medium polystyrene, in which he could model very fast and switch easily from one work to another, as sketches on paper. At the end of the 1960s he started to create his large sculpture-habitations, such as ‘Tour aux figures’, ‘Jardin d’Hiver’ and ‘Villa Falbala’ in which people can wander, stay, and contemplate. In 1969 ensued an acquaintance between him and the French Outsider Art artist Jacques Soisson.

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In 1978 Dubuffet collaborated with U.S. composer and musician Jasun Martz to create the record album artwork for Martz’s avant-garde symphony entitled The Pillory. The much written about drawing has been reproduced internationally in three different editions on tens-of-thousands of record albums and compact discs. A detail of the drawing is also featured on Martz’s second symphony (2005), The Pillory/The Battle, performed by The Intercontinental Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choir.

Dubuffet died on May 12, 1985, in Paris.

It seems to me that making couscous is a fitting tribute to Dubuffet since it is an Algerian staple, the country from which he drew inspiration, and since it is so popular nowadays in France. Couscous is a traditional Berber dish of semolina (granules of durum wheat) which is cooked by steaming. It is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous was voted the third-favorite dish of French people overall in 2011 in a study by TNS Sofres for the magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand, and the first in the east of France.

Traditionally semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. This process is labor-intensive. For the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world in instant form.

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To make instant couscous you simply bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the couscous, bring back to the boil, then turn off the heat, cover tightly and let sit for 15 minutes (instructions are always on the package). Uncover, fluff, and serve. Simplicity itself. It is used, like rice, to accompany all manner of meat or vegetable dishes.

Lamb shanks are an all time favorite of mine and are popular in Algeria accompanied by couscous. They were very hard to find in Argentina because butchers sold whole lamb legs with shanks attached, and are equally hard to find here in Yunnan because lamb is rare. Nonetheless here is my heuristic recipe for Algerian lamb shanks from memory.

Algerian Lamb Shanks

Heat olive oil in a deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown one lamb shank per person on all sides. Set the browned shanks aside. Adding more oil if necessary, add chopped onions and minced garlic and sauté until translucent. Add minced fresh ginger, powdered cardamom, saffron threads, chili flakes, powdered cloves, caraway, fennel seeds, powdered cinnamon, and salt to taste. I usually just add these spices in arbitrary quantities, adjusting them later to my taste as the shanks simmer. Add a handful each of blanched, sliced almonds and raisins (or saltanas), canned tomatoes and the zest and juice of one orange per 4 shanks. Return the shanks to the pan and cover with beef stock. Bring to a simmer and cook covered for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling from the bone. Let the liquid reduce but not dry out. Add diced carrot and fennel bulb and cook for about 20 minutes more until they are fully cooked but not mushy. Serve over couscous.