Oct 152018
 

On this date in 2012 Norodom Sihanouk (នរោត្តម សីហនុ), also known as សម្តេចឪ, (father prince), who was both king of Cambodia and prime minister at one time, died of a heart attack. The anniversary of his date of death is a federal holiday in Cambodia.

Sihanouk was born to the Khmer royal family in the French Protectorate of Cambodia, the only child of the daughter of the king, Sisowath Monivong. When Monivong died in 1941, Sihanouk was appointed king by the French Governor-General of Indochina, Sihanouk’s appointment as king was formalized the following day by the Cambodian Crown Council, and his coronation ceremony took place on 3rd May 1941. During the Japanese occupation of Cambodia, he dedicated most of his time to sports, filming, and the occasional tour to the countryside. In March 1945, the Japanese military, which had occupied Cambodia since August 1941, dissolved the nominal French colonial administration. Under pressure from the Japanese, Sihanouk proclaimed Cambodia’s independence and assumed the position of prime minister while serving as king at the same time.

Post-war, Sihanouk secured Cambodian independence from France in 1953. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated the throne and formed the political organization Sangkum, which won the 1955 general election. As prime minister, he governed Cambodia under one-party rule, suppressed political dissent, and declared himself head of state in 1960. A 1970 military coup ousted him and paved the way for the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic. Sihanouk fled to China and North Korea, forming a government-in-exile there and a resistance movement. After the Cambodian Civil War resulted in victory for the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia, now renamed Democratic Kampuchea, as its figurehead head of state. Although initially supportive of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, his relations with them declined and in 1976 he resigned. He was placed under house arrest until 1979, when Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge.

Sihanouk went into exile again, and in 1981, he formed FUNCINPEC (Front uni national pour un Cambodge indépendant, neutre, pacifique et coopératif), a resistance party. The following year, Sihanouk became president of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), a broad coalition of anti-Vietnamese resistance factions. This coalition retained Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations, making Sihanouk Cambodia’s internationally recognized head of state. In the late 1980s, informal talks were carried out to end hostilities between the Vietnam-supported People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the CGDK. In 1990, the Supreme National Council of Cambodia was formed as a transitional body to oversee Cambodia’s sovereign matters, with Sihanouk as its president. In 1991, peace accords were signed and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established the following year. The UNTAC organized general elections in 1993, and a coalition government, jointly led by his son Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, was subsequently formed. In 1993, Sihanouk was reinstated as Cambodia’s head of state and king. In 2004, he abdicated again with his son, Norodom Sihamoni, elected as his successor.

Between 2009 and 2011, Sihanouk spent most of his time in Beijing for medical care. He made a final public appearance in Phnom Penh on his 89th birthday and 20th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords on 30th October 2011. Thereafter, Sihanouk expressed his intent to stay in Cambodia indefinitely, but returned to Beijing in January 2012 for further medical treatment at the advice of his Chinese doctors.

In January 2012, Sihanouk issued a letter to express his wish to be cremated after his death, and for his ashes to be interred in a golden urn. A few months later, in September 2012, Sihanouk said that he would not return to Cambodia from Beijing for his 90th birthday, citing fatigue. On 15th October 2012, Sihanouk died of a heart attack.

Sihanouk pursued an artistic career during his lifetime, and wrote several musical compositions. He produced 50 films between 1966 and 2006, at times directing and acting in them.

    

Cookbooks often say that curries originated in India, but the word “curry” and its cognates, which are more or less the same in virtually all south and southeast Asian dialects, is no more useful than the word “stew” and no more helpful in talking about specific dishes. The curries of south and southeast Asia are incredibly diverse with individual names for specific dishes that may or may not include the word “curry.” “Red curry” is a common name for dishes in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, but their ingredients and spices vary to the point where you cannot think of them as in any sense the same dish, except that they have a red color. Here is a video of how to make Cambodian red curry with chicken. I make this dish quite often although I commonly buy the curry paste to save time. Notice that Cambodian curry looks more like a thick soup than a stew. A main meal in Cambodia often consists of a soupy stew, rice, and grilled fish.

Sep 242018
 

Today is the birthday (1896) of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, a writer whose works have come to represent the culture of the Jazz Age (1920s and 30s) in the US. While he achieved limited success in his lifetime, he is now widely regarded as one of the most significant North American writers of the 20th century. He finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, was published posthumously. Four collections of his short stories were published, as well as 164 short stories in magazines during his lifetime. To be plain spoken, I don’t like Fitzgerald’s work any more than I like that of his close contemporaries, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Their writing does not resonate with me, undoubtedly because I am not a fan of US culture, even though I lived there for 35 years. I was happy to escape when I retired 9 years ago, and will likely never return. Normally, when I post about a writer, I include a section of quotes at the end of the post, but here I will not, because Fitzgerald wrote nothing that I find memorable. That said, I recognize that his novels are popular, and Great Gatsby has been made into well received movies twice. So, he is worth a tip of the hat.

Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper-middle-class family, and was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed on his father’s side, Francis Scott Key. He was also named after his deceased sister, Louise Scott Fitzgerald, one of two sisters who died shortly before his birth. He later wrote: “Well, three months before I was born, my mother lost her other two children … I think I started then to be a writer.” His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was of Irish and English ancestry, and had moved to St. Paul from Maryland after the American Civil War, and was described as “a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners.” His mother was Mary “Molly” McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business.

Scott Fitzgerald spent the first decade of his childhood primarily in Buffalo, New York, occasionally in West Virginia (1898–1901 and 1903–1908) where his father worked for Procter & Gamble, with a short interlude in Syracuse, New York, (between January 1901 and September 1903). Edward Fitzgerald had earlier worked as a wicker furniture salesman; he joined Procter & Gamble when the business failed. His parents, both Catholic, sent Fitzgerald to two Catholic schools on the West Side of Buffalo, first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908). His formative years in Buffalo showed him to be an intelligent boy with a keen early interest in literature. In a rather unconventional style of parenting, Fitzgerald attended Holy Angels with the peculiar arrangement that he go for only half a day—and was allowed to choose which half.

In 1908, his father was fired from Procter & Gamble, and the family returned to Minnesota, where Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy in St. Paul from 1908 to 1911. When he was 13, he saw his first piece of writing appear in print—a detective story published in the school newspaper. In 1911, when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the Newman School, a prestigious Catholic prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey. Fitzgerald played on the 1912 Newman football team. At Newman, he met Father Sigourney Fay, who noticed his incipient talent with the written word and encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions.

After graduating from the Newman School in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue his artistic development at Princeton University. He tried out for the college football team, but was cut the first day of practice. He firmly dedicated himself at Princeton to honing his craft as a writer, and became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Princeton Tiger. He was also involved in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, which ran the Nassau Lit. His absorption in the Triangle—a kind of musical-comedy society—led to his submission of a novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons where the editor praised the writing but ultimately rejected the book. Four of the University’s eating clubs sent him bids at midyear, and he chose the University Cottage Club (where Fitzgerald’s desk and writing materials are still displayed in its library) known as “the ‘Big Four’ club that was most committed to the ideal of the fashionable gentleman.”

Fitzgerald’s writing pursuits at Princeton came at the expense of his coursework, however, causing him to be placed on academic probation, and in 1917 he dropped out of university to join the Army. During the winter of 1917, Fitzgerald was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and was a student of future United States President and General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower whom he intensely disliked. Worried that he might die in the War with his literary dreams unfulfilled, Fitzgerald hastily wrote The Romantic Egotist in the weeks before reporting for duty—and, although Scribner’s rejected it, the reviewer noted his novel’s originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to submit more work in the future.

Ginevra King

It was while attending Princeton that Fitzgerald met Chicago socialite and debutante Ginevra King on a visit back home in St. Paul. Immediately infatuated with her, according to Mizner, Fitzgerald “remained devoted to Ginevra as long as she would allow him to,” and wrote to her “daily the incoherent, expressive letters all young lovers write.” She would become his inspiration for the character of Isabelle Borgé, Amory Blaine’s first love in This Side of Paradise, for Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and several other characters in his novels and short stories.

Zelda

Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. While at a country club, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, a daughter of Alabama Supreme Court justice Anthony D. Sayre and the “golden girl”, in Fitzgerald’s terms, of Montgomery society. The war ended in 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever deployed. Upon his discharge he moved to New York City hoping to launch a career in advertising that would be lucrative enough to persuade Zelda to marry him. He worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency, living in a single room at 200 Claremont Avenue in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side.

Zelda accepted his marriage proposal, but after some time and despite working at an advertising firm and writing short stories, he was unable to convince her that he would be able to support her, leading her to break off the engagement. Fitzgerald returned to his parents’ house at 599 Summit Avenue, on Cathedral Hill, in St. Paul, to revise The Romantic Egotist, recast as This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographical account of Fitzgerald’s undergraduate years at Princeton. Fitzgerald was so short of money that he took up a job repairing car roofs. His revised novel was accepted by Scribner’s in late 1919 and was published on March 26th, 1920 and became an instant success, selling 41,075 copies in the first year. It launched Fitzgerald’s career as a writer and provided a steady income suitable to Zelda’s needs. They resumed their engagement and were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Their daughter and only child, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, was born on October 26th, 1921.

Subsequently, Fitzgerald made several excursions to Europe, mostly Paris and the French Riviera, and became friends with many members of the US expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s friendship with Hemingway was quite effusive, but Hemingway did not get on well with Zelda,and in addition to describing her as “insane” in his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed that Zelda “encouraged her husband to drink so as to distract Fitzgerald from his work on his novel,” so he could work on the short stories he sold to magazines to help support their lifestyle. Like most professional authors at the time, Fitzgerald supplemented his income by writing short stories for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, and Esquire, and sold his stories and novels to Hollywood studios. This “whoring,” as Fitzgerald and, subsequently, Hemingway called these sales, was a sore point in the two authors’ friendship. Fitzgerald claimed that he would first write his stories in an ‘authentic’ manner, then rewrite them to put in the “twists that made them into salable magazine stories.”

Although Fitzgerald’s passion lay in writing novels, only his first novel sold well enough to support the opulent lifestyle that he and Zelda adopted as New York celebrities. (The Great Gatsby, now considered to be his masterpiece, did not become popular until after Fitzgerald’s death.) Because of this lifestyle, as well as the bills from Zelda’s medical care when they came, Fitzgerald was constantly in financial trouble and often required loans from his literary agent, Harold Ober, and his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald began working on his fourth novel during the late 1920s but was sidetracked by financial difficulties that necessitated his writing commercial short stories, and by the schizophrenia that struck Zelda in 1930. Her emotional health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In February 1932, she was hospitalized at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Fitzgerald rented the “La Paix” estate in the suburb of Towson, Maryland to work on his latest book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychiatrist who falls in love with and marries Nicole Warren, one of his patients. The book went through many versions, the first of which was to be a story of matricide. Some critics have seen the book as a thinly veiled autobiographical novel recounting Fitzgerald’s problems with his wife, the corrosive effects of wealth and a decadent lifestyle, his own egoism and self-confidence, and his continuing alcoholism.

Fitzgerald was extremely protective of his “material” (i.e., their life together). When Zelda wrote and sent to Scribner’s her own fictional version of their lives in Europe, Save Me the Waltz, Fitzgerald was angry and was able to make some changes prior to the novel’s publication, and convince her doctors to keep her from writing any more about what he called his “material,” which included their relationship. His book was finally published in 1934 as Tender Is the Night. Critics who had waited nine years for the followup to The Great Gatsby had mixed opinions about the novel. Most were thrown off by its three-part structure and many felt that Fitzgerald had not lived up to their expectations. The novel did not sell well upon publication but, like the earlier Gatsby, the book’s reputation has since risen significantly. Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and financial difficulties, in addition to Zelda’s mental illness, made for difficult years in Baltimore. He was hospitalized nine times at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his friend H. L. Mencken noted in a 1934 letter that “The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”

In 1926, Fitzgerald was invited by producer John W. Considine, Jr., to temporarily relocate to Hollywood in order to write a flapper comedy for United Artists. Scott and Zelda moved into a studio-owned bungalow in January of the following year and Fitzgerald soon met and began an affair with Lois Moran. The starlet became a temporary muse for the author and he rewrote Rosemary Hoyt, one of the central characters in Tender is the Night, (who had been a male in earlier drafts) to closely mirror her. The trip exacerbated the couple’s marital difficulties, and they left Hollywood after two months. In the ensuing years, Zelda became increasingly violent and emotionally distressed, and in 1936, Fitzgerald had her placed in the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham

Although he reportedly found movie work degrading, Fitzgerald continued to struggle financially and entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937, that necessitated him moving to Hollywood, where he earned his highest annual income up to that point: around $30,000. He also began a high-profile live-in affair with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. The projects Fitzgerald worked on included two weeks’ unused dialog work on loanout to David Selznick for Gone with the Wind, and, for MGM, revisions on Madame Curie, for which he received no credits. His only screenplay credit is for Three Comrades (1938). He also spent time during this period working on his fifth and final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, published posthumously as The Last Tycoon, based on film executive Irving Thalberg. In 1939, MGM terminated the contract, and Fitzgerald became a freelance screenwriter. During his work on Winter Carnival, Fitzgerald went on an alcoholic binge and was treated by New York psychiatrist Richard H. Hoffmann.

From 1939 until his death in 1940, Fitzgerald mocked himself as a Hollywood hack through the character of Pat Hobby in a sequence of 17 short stories, later collected as “The Pat Hobby Stories,” which garnered many positive reviews. The Pat Hobby Stories were originally published in Esquire between January 1940 and July 1941, even after Fitzgerald’s death. US Census records show his official address at this time to be the estate of Edward Everett Horton in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley.

Fitzgerald became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking which undermined his health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda’s biographer, Nancy Milford, Fitzgerald claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, but Milford dismisses it as a pretext to cover his drinking problems. However, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends that Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring tuberculosis, and according to Milford, Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener said that Fitzgerald suffered a mild attack of tuberculosis in 1919, and in 1929 he had “what proved to be a tubercular hemorrhage.” Some have said that the writer’s hemorrhage was caused by bleeding from esophageal varices.

Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in the late 1930s. After the first, in Schwab’s Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. He moved in with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald’s apartment on North Laurel Avenue.  Fitzgerald had two flights of stairs to climb to his apartment; Graham’s was on the ground floor. On the night of December 20th, 1940, Fitzgerald and Graham attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love starring Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. As the two were leaving the Pantages Theater, Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell and had trouble leaving the theater; upset, he said to Graham, “They think I am drunk, don’t they?”

The following day, as Fitzgerald ate a chocolate bar and made notes in his newly arrived Princeton Alumni Weekly, Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, gasp, and fall to the floor. She ran to the manager of the building, Harry Culver, founder of Culver City. Upon entering the apartment to assist Fitzgerald, he stated, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack at age 44. Dr. Clarence H. Nelson, Fitzgerald’s physician, signed the death certificate. Fitzgerald’s body was moved to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary.

Among the attendees at a visitation held at a funeral home was Dorothy Parker, who reportedly cried and murmured “the poor son-of-a-bitch,” a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral in The Great Gatsby. His body was transported to Maryland, where his funeral was attended by twenty or thirty people in Bethesda; among the attendees were his only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith (then age 19), and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

One might celebrate Fitzgerald with a Jazz Age cocktail, I suppose. This was the era of Prohibition when speakeasies serving elaborate alcoholic concoctions were all the rage. Fitzgerald’s drink of choice was gin, and there are plenty of recipes for cocktails with gin if that’s your pleasure. Maybe a gin Rickey: gin, fresh lime juice, and a splash of club soda. I don’t drink alcohol, so I will recommend a dish that is healthier than a cocktail, and probably not to Fitzgerald’s tastes, although it was born in his era: Cobb salad. Salad dressings, for me the bane of US “cuisine”, including, French, Russian, Thousand Island, etc. reached their pinnacle of popularity in the Jazz Age, and have never quite relinquished center stage in North America for reasons I cannot fathom. I will always prefer a good quality olive oil on my salads, and nothing else. The salad ingredients should speak for themselves and not be drowned in goop. Enter the Cobb salad. The Cobb salad is named for Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Hollywood. The salad was reputedly invented by Cobb himself in 1937 when he was in the restaurant kitchen around midnight, and, being hungry, put together some avocado, cooked bacon, and leftovers from the evening meals to make the salad. But, other sources suggest that the salad was the idea of Robert Kreis or Paul Posti, both executive chefs at one time or another at the Brown Derby. Either way, the salad became a signature dish of the restaurant. Properly made, a Cobb salad consists of chopped salad greens (iceberg lettuce, watercress, endive and romaine lettuce), tomato, crisp bacon, cooked chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives, Roquefort cheese, and red-wine vinaigrette. I’ll give you a couple of photos so that you have the right idea. You don’t need more than that for a recipe.

Aug 102018
 

On this date in 1519, five ships under the command of Ferdinand Magellan’s command left Seville to begin the first ever circumnavigation of the world. One ship and 18 of the original crew made it back to Spain. Magellan died en route, but he is remembered in numerous place names, most especially the Strait of Magellan, and in modern discoveries such as the Magellanic Clouds (two irregular dwarf galaxies) as well as animal species, such as Magellanic penguins (which I saw when I visited Tierra del Fuego in 2011).

Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the West (1492–1503) had the goal of reaching the Indies and establishing direct commercial relations between Spain and Asian kingdoms. The Spanish soon realized that the lands of the Americas were not a part of Asia, but a new continent. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas reserved for Portugal the eastern routes that went around Africa, and Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498. Castile urgently needed to find a new commercial route to Asia. After the Junta de Toro conference of 1505, the Spanish Crown commissioned expeditions to discover a route to the west. Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa reached the Pacific Ocean in 1513 after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, and Juan Díaz de Solís died in Río de la Plata in 1516 while exploring South America in the service of Spain.

In October 1517 in Seville, Magellan (already an experienced sailor, explorer, and soldier), contacted Juan de Aranda, Factor of the Casa de Contratación. Following the arrival of his partner Rui Faleiro, and with the support of Aranda, they presented their project to the Spanish king, Charles I, future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Magellan’s project, if successful, would realize Columbus’ plan of a spice route by sailing west without damaging relations with the Portuguese. The idea was in tune with the times and had already been discussed after Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific. On 22nd March 1518 the king named Magellan and Faleiro captains so that they could travel in search of the Spice Islands in July. He raised them to the rank of Commander of the Order of Santiago, and granted them a number of monopolies on their discoveries. The expedition was funded largely by the Spanish Crown, which provided ships carrying supplies for two years of travel. Expert cartographer Jorge Reinel and Diogo Ribeiro, a Portuguese who had started working for Charles V in 1518 as a cartographer at the Casa de Contratación, took part in the development of the maps to be used in the travel. Several problems arose during the preparation of the trip, including lack of money, the king of Portugal trying to stop them, Magellan and other Portuguese incurring suspicion from the Spanish, and the difficult nature of Faleiro. Finally, thanks to the tenacity of Magellan, the expedition was ready. Through the bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca they obtained the participation of merchant Christopher de Haro, who provided a quarter of the funds and goods to barter.

The flagship Trinidad (110 tons, crew 55), under Magellan’s command

San Antonio (120 tons; crew 60) commanded by Juan de Cartagena

Concepción (90 tons, crew 45) commanded by Gaspar de Quesada

Santiago (75 tons, crew 32) commanded by João Serrão

Victoria (85 tons, crew 43), named after the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria de Triana, where Magellan took an oath of allegiance to Charles V; commanded by Luis Mendoza.

The crew of about 270 included men from several nations, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Greece, England and France. Spanish authorities were wary of Magellan, who was Portuguese, so that they almost prevented him from sailing, switching his mostly Portuguese crew to mostly Spaniards. It included about 40 Portuguese, among them Magellan’s brother-in-law Duarte Barbosa, João Serrão, a relative of Francisco Serrão, Estêvão Gomes and Magellan’s indentured servant Enrique of Malacca. Faleiro, who had planned to accompany the voyage, withdrew prior to boarding. Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Spanish merchant ship captain living in Seville, embarked seeking the king’s pardon for previous misdeeds. Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar and traveler, asked to be on the voyage, accepting the title of “supernumerary” and a modest salary. He became a strict assistant of Magellan and kept an accurate journal. The only other sailor to report the voyage would be Francisco Albo, who kept a formal logbook. Juan de Cartagena was named Inspector General of the expedition, responsible for its financial and trading operations.

The fleet left Seville on this date in 1519 and descended the Guadalquivir River to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the river. They remained there until 20th September 1519 when they left Spain. King Manuel I ordered a Portuguese naval detachment to pursue Magellan, but he evaded them. After stopping at the Canary Islands, Magellan arrived at Cape Verde, where he set course for Cape St. Augustine in Brazil. On 27th November the expedition crossed the equator; on 6th December the crew sighted South America. On 13th December they anchored near present-day Rio de Janeiro. There the crew was resupplied, but bad conditions caused them to delay. Afterwards, they continued to sail south along South America’s east coast, looking for the strait that Magellan believed would lead to the Spice Islands. The fleet reached Río de la Plata in early February, 1520.

For wintering over, Magellan established a temporary settlement called Puerto San Julian on March 30 [my birthday], 1520. On Easter (April 1 and 2), a mutiny broke out involving three of the five ship captains. Magellan took quick and decisive action. Luis de Mendoza, the captain of Victoria, was killed by a party sent by Magellan, and the ship was recovered. After Concepción’s anchor cable had been secretly cut by his forces, the ship drifted towards the well-armed Trinidad, and Concepcion’s captain de Quesada and his inner circle surrendered. Juan de Cartagena, the head of the mutineers on the San Antonio, subsequently gave up. Antonio Pigafetta reported that Gaspar Quesada, the captain of Concepción, and other mutineers were executed, while Juan de Cartagena, the captain of San Antonio, and a priest named Padre Sanchez de la Reina were marooned on the coast. Most of the men, including Juan Sebastián Elcano, were needed and so pardoned. Reportedly those killed were drawn and quartered and impaled on the coast; years later, their bones were found by Sir Francis Drake.

The journey resumed. The help of Duarte Barbosa was crucial in facing the riot in Puerto San Julian; Magellan appointed him as captain of the Victoria. The Santiago was sent down the coast on a scouting expedition and was wrecked in a sudden storm. All of its crew survived and made it safely to shore. Two of them returned overland to inform Magellan of what had happened, and to bring rescue to their comrades. After this experience, Magellan decided to wait for a few weeks more before resuming the voyage with the four remaining ships.

At 52°S latitude on 21st October 1520, the fleet reached Cape Virgenes and concluded they had found the passage, because the waters were brine and deep inland. Four ships began an arduous trip through the 373-mile (600 km) long passage that Magellan called the Estrecho (Canal) de Todos los Santos, (“All Saints’ Channel”), because the fleet travelled through it on 1st November or All Saints’ Day. The strait is now named the Strait of Magellan. He first assigned Concepcion and San Antonio to explore the strait, but the latter, commanded by Gómez, deserted and headed back to Spain on 20th November. On 28th November, the three remaining ships entered the South Pacific. Magellan named the waters the Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean) because of its apparent stillness. Magellan and his crew were the first Europeans to reach Tierra del Fuego just east of the Pacific side of the strait.

Heading northwest, the crew reached the equator on 13th February 1521. On 6th March they reached the Marianas and Guam. Pigafetta described the “lateen sail” used by the inhabitants of Guam, hence the name “Island of Sails” but he also writes the inhabitants “entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on”, including “the small boat that was fastened to the poop of the flagship.” “Those people are poor, but ingenious and very thievish, on account of which we called those three islands the islands of Ladroni.”

On 16th March Magellan reached the island of Homonhon in the Philippines, with 150 crew left. Members of his expedition became the first Europeans to reach the Philippine archipelago. Magellan relied on Enrique, his Malay servant and interpreter, to communicate with the indigenous peoples. He had been indentured by Magellan in 1511 after the colonization of Malacca, and had accompanied him through later adventures. They traded gifts with Rajah Siaiu of Mazaua who guided them to Cebu on 7th April.

Rajah Humabon of Cebu was friendly towards Magellan and the Spaniards; both he and his queen Hara Amihan were baptized as Christians and were given the image of the Holy Child (later known as Santo Niño de Cebu) which along with a cross (Magellan’s Cross) symbolizes the Christianization of the Philippines. Afterward, Rajah Humabon and his ally Datu Zula convinced Magellan to kill their enemy, Datu Lapu-Lapu, on Mactan. Magellan wanted to convert Lapu-Lapu to Christianity, as he had Humabon, but Lapu-Lapu rejected that. On the morning of 27th April 1521, Magellan sailed to Mactan with a small attack force. During the resulting battle against Lapu-Lapu’s troops, Magellan was struck by a bamboo spear, and later was surrounded and finished off with other weapons.

Pigafetta and Ginés de Mafra provided written documents of the events culminating in Magellan’s death:

When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, [the natives] had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred people. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries… The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly… Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice… A native hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the native’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.

Magellan provided in his will that Enrique, his interpreter, was to be freed upon his death. But after the battle, the remaining ships’ masters refused to free the Malay. Enrique escaped his indenture on 1 May with the aid of Rajah Humabon, amid the deaths of almost 30 crewmen.

Pigafetta had been jotting down words in both Butuanon and Cebuano languages – which he started at Mazaua on 29 March and his list grew to a total of 145 words. He continued communications with indigenous peoples during the rest of the voyage.

Nothing of Magellan’s body survived. That afternoon the grieving rajah-king, hoping to recover his remains, offered Mactan’s victorious chief a handsome ransom of copper and iron for them but Datu Lapulapu refused. He intended to keep the body as a war trophy. Since his wife and child died in Seville before any member of the expedition could return to Spain, it seemed that every evidence of Ferdinand Magellan’s existence had vanished from the earth.

(click to enlarge)

It took another 16 months after Magellan’s death for the one surviving ship, Victoria, the smallest carrack in the fleet, to make it back to Seville after completing the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Only 18 men out of the original 237 men in the fleet were on board.

There are plenty of original accounts for you to read concerning the rigors and losses on the return. Meanwhile I will turn to the taste buds.

Magellan gin is a blue gin inspired by Magellan’s voyage, particularly the spices that Victoria had on board (notably cloves). Magellan is also the name of a camp cooking equipment company, and I have certainly cooked on stoves such as this one on camping trips (as well as in my first apartment in Buenos Aires).

I could certainly  you numerous pointers on how to turn out a feast using only a 2-burner camp stove, or how to waste an evening drinking blue gin, but instead I will focus on an indigenous Filipino ingredient, the kalamansi, in honor of the place where Magellan met his end. Kalamansi (Citrus microcarpa) is a citrus fruit used mostly for the sourness it gives to a dish. Despite its outer appearance and its aroma, the taste of the fruit itself is quite sour, although the peel is sweet. Kalamansi can be made into marmalade in the same way you make orange marmalade (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/alice-liddell/  ).

  

The fruit can be frozen whole and used as ice cubes in beverages such as tea, soft drinks, water, and cocktails. The juice can be used in place of that of the common Persian lime. The juice is extracted by crushing the whole fruit, and makes a flavorful drink similar to lemonade. A liqueur can be made from the whole fruits, in combination with vodka and sugar.

 

Jul 102018
 

Marcel Proust, famed French novelist, was born on this date in 1871 in the Paris borough of Auteuil (the south-western sector of the then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. He was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of his voluminous novel, In Search of Lost Time, concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and La Belle Époque.

Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, studying cholera in Europe and Asia. He wrote numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Clémence (Weil), was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Proust was raised in his father’s Catholic faith, and was baptized on 5th August 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin, and later confirmed as a Catholic, even though he never formally practiced Catholicism. He later became an atheist and dabbled in mysticism.

By the age of 9, Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.) In 1882, at the age of 11, Proust became a pupil at the Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted by his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. Thanks to his classmates, he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.

Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes’ Way, part three of In Search of Lost Time. As a young man, Proust was a social climber and had a reputation as a snob and a dilettante when it came to his writing. Later on, because of this reputation he had trouble getting Swann’s Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. Proust attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust’s childhood friend Jacques Bizet, of Madeleine Lemaire and of Mme Arman de Caillavet, one of the models for Madame Verdurin, and mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whose fiancée (Jeanne Pouquet) he claimed to be in love with. It is through Mme Arman de Caillavet that he made the acquaintance of Anatole France, her lover.

In an 1892 article published in Le Banquet entitled “L’Irréligion d’État” and again in a 1904 Le Figaro article entitled “La mort des cathédrales”, Proust argued against the separation of church and state, declaring that socialism posed a greater threat to society than the Church and emphasizing the latter’s role in sustaining a cultural and educational tradition.

Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he was granted sick leave that extended for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at another job, and he did not move from his parents’ apartment until after both had died. His life and family circle changed markedly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust’s brother, Robert Proust, married and left the family home. His father died in November of the same year. Finally, his mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate. Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In Search of Lost Time is best remembered for its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the “episode of the madeleine” which occurs early in the first volume. This episode begins:

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…

Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dipped in linden-flower tea which my aunt gave me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…

Because of its prominence at the beginning of the novel, the madeleine has become emblematic of Proust’s culinary visions and the relationship between food and memory. I made obeisance to this notion with a recipe for madeleines here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-magdalene/ While the classic madeleine and Proust have become inextricably entwined, In Search of Lost Time is loaded with detailed references to cooking apart from madeleines, and he frequently compares fine dishes with great music or art. There is a slight sense on occasion that Proust is deliberately going over the top in his praise of particular dishes – but it is only slight.

Proust compares Françoise, the family cook in Combray, to an artist, a goddess, a priestess, and a fairy-tale heroine, in his descriptions of her products. In her kitchen she stands “commanding the forces of nature which had become her assistants, as in fairy tales where giants hire themselves out as cooks.” Françoise also has a dark side, like all great protagonists in literature. One summer she makes asparagus every day because she wants to get rid of the pregnant scullery maid who has to pare the stalks, and who is highly allergic to them. Françoise has her greatest moment of glory when Monsieur de Norpois is invited to dinner and she sets out to make a masterpiece, which begins with combing the markets for the perfect ingredients, then laboring endlessly over every dish. The meal she prepares is York ham, jellied boeuf à la mode, a pineapple and truffle salad, and Nesselrode pudding. You can find a recipe for Nesselrode pudding here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/w-s-gilbert/  and I am sure the one that Françoise prepared was gorgeous. Proust compares her jellied beef to a Michelangelo sculpture, which I’d venture to say is getting into the hyperbole zone, but he can be forgiven. He also compares its crafting to his own work crafting words.

Here is a recipe. Boeuf à la mode can be served hot, or cold in aspic. Both are classics of Parisian haute cuisine, with the latter being legendary. Three points need noting. First, the traditional recipe uses at least one calf’s foot in the cooking broth so that it gels naturally. This process can be a little hit-and-miss, however. The broth may not get enough gelatin from one foot to gel properly. One answer is to use two or more calves’ feet. The other answer is to use some commercial gelatin in addition. Second, quatre épices (four spices) mix is usually a blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. In French recipes, bouquet garni is often mentioned with little or no reference to what’s in it. This is because the actual contents of the bouquet garni are cook’s choice, and may vary from dish to dish. It can be made of whole stalks of herbs tied in a bundle, or fresh leaves tied in a muslin bag. For this dish you should use parsley, thyme, and bay leaf at minimum.

This dish is a 48-hour process at minimum: 24 hours to marinate the meat, and 24 hours to cook the meat, mold it, and let the molds set. If you are cooking this dish for Sunday dinner, therefore, you must start on Friday morning. I won’t mince words either. This is not a dish for beginners or even halfway experienced cooks. You must know exactly what you are doing to get the flavors right, AND to make the molded dish look attractive.

Bœuf à la mode en gelée

Ingredients

2.5 kg stewing beef, fat removed
800 ml beef stock
500 ml Sauternes or other sweet white wine
500 ml Madeira wine
250 gm carrots, peeled and sliced
200 gm of bacon or pickled pork, cut in 5 mm squares
100 gm sliced onions
50 ml champagne
40 gm beef fat (or pork fat)
3 whole cloves
2 egg whites
1 calf’s foot, cut in pieces
bouquet garni
quatre épices
salt, pepper

Instructions

Put the beef in a large pot with 400 ml of Sauternes and 400ml of Madeira, so that the beef is submerged in the marinade. Add salt, pepper, and quartre épices to taste, cover, and let marinate for 24 hours.

Remove the beef from the marinade, and let it air dry. Cut slits all over the beef and insert the pieces of bacon in them. Heat a Dutch oven over high heat and add the fat. When it is hot sear the beef on all sides. Then flambé the pot with the champagne. Add the veal foot, carrots, onion, bouquet garni, cloves, stock, the rest of the Sauternes and Madeira, the marinade. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 4 ½ hours.

[You can serve the beef hot at this point. For chilled beef in aspic there are extra steps.]

Remove the beef and carrots from the broth and reserve. Strain the broth through muslin or cheesecloth. Put the strained broth in a clean pot and heat over medium heat. Beat the egg whites and pour them into the hot broth. As the whites cook they will clarify the broth. When the broth is clear, strain it through muslin or filter papers.

Cut the beef in small slices. Pour a small amount of broth into the number of individual molds you are using, or into one large mold. Let the broth set in the refrigerator. Next layer carrots and beef pieces decoratively until you have filled the molds. Pour broth into the molds so that the last layer of beef and carrots is covered. Refrigerate, and let set. To unmold, dip the molds briefly in hot water, invert them over a plate, and the molded beef and carrots should pop out when tapped.

Jul 092018
 

Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States, died on this date in 1850. Normally I reserve dates of death for saints, or other religious figures, because they are more generally honored on those dates than on their birthdays. Taylor hardly qualifies as a saint, or a religious figure of any sort, but his death was noteworthy in several ways, so I will celebrate it here. I will also look at his presidency which was short and undistinguished, but came at a watershed time in US history when the nation was rapidly evolving, and still in the process of defining itself and its boundaries. A key issue as the nation pushed its boundaries west over the Appalachians, and also acquired a large parcel of territory in the southwest and west following war with Mexico, had to do with the status of slavery in the newly forming states. The split between the northern and southern states in the east over slavery was already evident, and the secession of the South was on the cards. Taylor’s chief task in office was holding the Union in place as it expanded and diversified.

Taylor was born into a prominent family of planters who migrated westward from Virginia to Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a Captain in the War of 1812. He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a Colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”. In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and drove his troops out of Texas. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops commanded by Pedro de Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrey. Defying orders, Taylor led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor retained his popularity.

The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political tenets and lack of interest in politics. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to take the nomination. He won the general election alongside New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having served in a prior political office.

As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even though partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession dominated the political agenda and led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and sought sectional harmony above all other concerns. To avoid the issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850, which was not reached until after his death.

As president-elect, Taylor kept his distance from Washington, not resigning his Western Division command until late January 1849. He spent the months following the election formulating his cabinet selections. He was deliberate and quiet about his decisions, to the frustration of his fellow Whigs. While he despised patronage and political games, he endured a flurry of advances from office-seekers looking to play a role in his administration. While he would not appoint any Democrats, Taylor wanted his cabinet to reflect the nation’s diverse interests, and so apportioned the seats geographically. He also avoided choosing prominent Whigs, sidestepping such obvious selections as Clay.

Taylor began his trek to Washington in late January, a journey rife with bad weather, delays, injuries, sickness—and an abduction by a family friend. Taylor finally arrived in the nation’s capital on February 24th and soon met with the outgoing President Polk. The incumbent Democrat held a low opinion of Taylor, privately deeming him “without political information” and “wholly unqualified for the station” of president. Taylor spent the following week meeting with political elites, some of whom were unimpressed with his appearance and demeanor. With less than two weeks until his inauguration, he met with Clayton and hastily finalized his cabinet.

Taylor’s term as president began Sunday, March 4th, but his inauguration was not held until the following day out of religious concerns. His inauguration speech discussed the many tasks facing the nation, but presented a governing style of deference to Congress and sectional compromise instead of assertive executive action. His speech also emphasized the importance of following president Washington’s precedent in avoiding entangling alliances. During the period after his inauguration, Taylor made time to meet with numerous office-seekers and other ordinary citizens who desired his attention. He also attended an unusual number of funerals, including services for former president Polk and Dolley Madison. According to Eisenhower, Taylor coined the phrase “First Lady” in his eulogy for Madison. Throughout the summer of 1849, Taylor toured the northeastern U.S., to familiarize himself with a region of which he had seen little. He spent much of the trip plagued by gastrointestinal illness and returned to Washington by September. The fact that he was prone to stomach problems is important for what occurred the next year.

As Taylor took office, Congress faced a battery of questions related to the Mexican Cession, land acquired by the U.S. after the Mexican War and divided into military districts (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/treaty-of-guadalupe-hidalgo/ ). It was unclear which districts would be established into states and which would become federal territories, while the question of their slave status threatened to bitterly divide Congress. Additionally, many in the South had grown increasingly angry about the aid that northerners had given to fugitive slaves. While a southern slaveowner himself, Taylor believed that slavery was economically untenable in the Mexican Cession, and as such he opposed slavery in those territories as a needless source of controversy. His major goal was sectional peace, preserving the Union through legislative compromise. As the threat of Southern secession grew, he sided increasingly with antislavery northerners such as Senator William H. Seward of New York, even suggesting that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in federal territories should such a bill reach his desk.

In Taylor’s view, the best way forward was to admit California as a state rather than a federal territory, as it would leave the slavery question out of Congress’s hands. The timing for statehood was in Taylor’s favor, as the Gold Rush was well underway at the time of his inauguration, and California’s population was exploding.] The administration dispatched Rep. Thomas Butler King to California, to test the waters and advocate on behalf of statehood, knowing that the Californians were certain to adopt an anti-slavery constitution. King found that a constitutional convention was already underway, and by October 1849, the convention unanimously agreed to join the Union—and to ban slavery within their borders.

The question of the New Mexico–Texas border was unsettled at the time of Taylor’s inauguration. The territory newly won from Mexico was under federal jurisdiction, but the Texans claimed a swath of land north of Santa Fe and were determined to include it within their borders, despite having no significant presence there. Taylor sided with the New Mexicans’ claim, initially pushing to keep it as a federal territory, but eventually supported statehood so as to further reduce the slavery debate in Congress. The Texas government, under newly instated governor P. Hansborough Bell, tried to ramp up military action in defense of the territory against the federal government, but was unsuccessful.

The Latter Day Saint settlers of modern-day Utah had established a provisional State of Deseret, an enormous swath of territory which had little hope of recognition by Congress. The Taylor administration considered combining the California and Utah territories, but instead opted to organize the Utah Territory. To alleviate the Mormon population’s concerns over religious freedom, Taylor promised they would have relative independence from Congress despite being a federal territory.

Taylor sent his only State of the Union report to Congress in December 1849. He recapped international events and suggested several adjustments to tariff policy and executive organization, but such issues were overshadowed by the sectional crisis facing Congress. He reported on California’s and New Mexico’s applications for statehood, and recommended that Congress approve them as written and “should abstain from the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character”. The policy report was prosaic and unemotional, but ended with a sharp condemnation of secessionists. It had no effect on Southern legislators, who saw the admission of two free states as an existential threat, and Congress remained stalled.

That is how things stood when Taylor became mortally ill. On July 4th, 1850, Taylor reportedly consumed copious amounts of raw fruit and iced milk while attending holiday celebrations during a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction. Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. His doctor diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus, a flexible mid-nineteenth-century term for intestinal ailments as diverse as diarrhea and dysentery but not related to Asiatic cholera, the latter being a widespread epidemic at the time of Taylor’s death. The identity and source of Taylor’s illness are the subject of historical speculation (including a longstanding conspiracy theory that he was poisoned), although it is known that several of his cabinet members had come down with a similar illness. Fever ensued, and Taylor’s chance of recovery was small. On July 8th, Taylor remarked to a medical attendant:

I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.

Despite constant treatment, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9th, 1850. He was 65 years old.  After his death, vice president Fillmore assumed the presidency and completed Taylor’s term, which ended on March 4th, 1853. Soon after taking office, Fillmore signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which settled many of the issues concerning statehood, territorial boundaries, and slavery that faced the Taylor administration. Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., from July 13th, 1850, to October 25th, 1850. (It was built in 1835 to hold remains of notables until either the grave site could be prepared, or transportation arranged to another city.) His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as “Springfield” in Louisville, Kentucky.

It would certainly be more than a little morbid to have a feast of fresh fruit and milk on this date, although it would fit with my common practice of celebrating kings of England who are reputed to have “died of a surfeit” of something or other — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/king-john/ Much better to honor with Taylor with a known favorite dish. Taylor, as a Southerner, is known to have preferred Southern dishes, and a particular favorite were calas, a kind of beignet made with rice flour. Calas and beignets originate in New Orleans, but what they evolved from is a source of debate. Some claim they were brought from Africa by slaves, others, that they are from French recipes. In the 19th century they were common breakfast food sold on the streets of New Orleans, but writers in the first decade of the 20th century refer to the increasing rarity of calas as street food. Though not widely sold, calas continued to be made at home using leftover rice, and they were a typical breakfast food in early 20th-century New Orleans. After World War II, while the beignet remained popular, the calas became more and more obscure. From a breakfast food they evolved into a Mardi Gras and First Communion treat among Catholic African-American families.

In early recipes for calas, rice was boiled and cooled, then yeast added to make a sponge that was allowed to proof overnight. From this a batter was made by adding eggs, sugar and a little flour for binding. Rice flour was preferable but difficult to obtain. A dash of salt might be included, and a grating of nutmeg was a typical addition. The batter was dropped by the spoonful into deep, boiling lard and fried until browned. Modern recipes reflect changes in available ingredients, cooking practices, and tastes.

Calas

Ingredients

½ cup uncooked medium-grain rice
salt
½ cup warm water
1 ¼ tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
vegetable oil
powdered sugar

Instructions

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the rice and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, for 25 to 30 minutes until the rice is soft and the mixture is thick. Remove from the heat and drain well. Place 1 ½ cups of the cooked rice in a bowl, and reserve the rest for other uses. Mash the rice with a potato masher, then let cool until it is lukewarm.

Stir together the warm water, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar in a large cup. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir the mixture into rice. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place (around 80°F), 8 to 12 hours.

Stir the eggs into rice mixture. Then stir in the flour, sugar and nutmeg, plus a pinch of salt. Combine well, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons into the hot oil, and fry, in batches, for 3 to 5 minutes, turning with a slotted spoon, until golden brown. Drain on wire racks, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and serve immediately.

 

 

Apr 262018
 

Today is the birthday (1798) of Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix, a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. Delacroix was born in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, now a suburb of Paris, southeast of the center. His mother, Victoire, was the daughter of the cabinet-maker Jean-François Oeben. He had three much older siblings. Charles-Henri Delacroix (1779–1845) rose to the rank of General in the Napoleonic army. Henriette (1780–1827) married the diplomat Raymond de Verninac Saint-Maur (1762–1822). Henri was born six years later. He was killed at the Battle of Friedland in 1807. There is reason to believe that Eugène’s father, Charles-François Delacroix, was infertile at the time of Eugène’s conception and that his biological father was Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family and successor of Charles Delacroix as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and whom the adult Eugène resembled in appearance. Throughout his career as a painter, Delacroix was cared for (one way or another) by Talleyrand, who served successively the Restoration and king Louis-Philippe, and ultimately as ambassador of France in Great Britain, and later by Talleyrand’s grandson, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and speaker of the French House of Commons. His legal father, Charles Delacroix, died in 1805, and his mother died in 1814, leaving Delacroix an orphan at 16.

 

Delacroix’s early education was at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen where he received classical training and won awards for drawing. In 1815 he began his art training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David. An early church commission, The Virgin of the Harvest (1819), displays the influence of Raphael, but a like commission, The Virgin of the Sacred Heart (1821), shows a freer interpretation. It precedes the influence of the more colorful and open style of Rubens, and Théodore Géricault.  The impact of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa was profound, and stimulated Delacroix to produce his first major painting, The Barque of Dante, which was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1822.

The work caused a sensation, and was largely derided by the public and officialdom, yet was purchased by the State for the Luxembourg Galleries.Two years later he again achieved popular success for his The Massacre at Chios.

Delacroix’s painting of the massacre at Chios shows sick, dying Greek civilians about to be slaughtered by the Turks. One of several paintings he made of this contemporary event, it expresses sympathy for the Greek cause in their war of independence against the Turks, a popular sentiment at the time for the French people. Delacroix was quickly recognized as a leading painter in the new Romantic style, and the picture was bought by the state. His depiction of suffering was controversial, however, as there was no glorious event taking place, no patriots raising their swords in valor as in David’s Oath of the Horatii, only a disaster. Many critics deplored the painting’s despairing tone; the artist Antoine-Jean Gros called it “a massacre of art”. The pathos in the depiction of an infant clutching its dead mother’s breast had an especially powerful effect, although this detail was condemned as unfit for art by Delacroix’s critics.

Delacroix produced a second painting in support of the Greeks in their war for independence, this time referring to the capture of Missolonghi by Turkish forces in 1825. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Turks.

A trip to England in 1825 included visits to Thomas Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington, and the color and handling of English painting provided impetus for his only full-length portrait, the elegant Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826–30). At roughly the same time, Delacroix was creating romantic works of numerous themes, many of which would continue to interest him for over 30 years.

By 1825, he was producing lithographs illustrating Shakespeare, and soon thereafter lithographs and paintings from Goethe’s Faust. Paintings such as The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan (1826), and Woman with Parrot (1827), introduced subjects of violence and sensuality which became recurrent in his oeuvre.

These various romantic strands came together in the Death of Sardanapalus (1827–28). Delacroix’s painting of the death of the Assyrian king  shows an emotionally stirring scene alive with beautiful colors, exotic costumes and tragic events. It depicts the besieged king watching impassively as guards carry out his orders to kill his servants, concubines and animals. The literary source is a play by Byron, although the play does not specifically mention any massacre of concubines.

Delacroix’s most influential work came in 1830 with the painting Liberty Leading the People, which for choice of subject and technique highlights the differences between the Romantic approach and the neoclassical style. Liberty Although Delacroix was inspired by contemporary events to invoke this romantic image of the spirit of liberty, he seems to be trying to convey the will and character of the people, rather than glorifying the actual event, the 1830 revolution against Charles X, which did little other than bring a different king, Louis-Philippe, to power. Although the French government bought the painting, officials deemed its glorification of liberty too inflammatory and removed it from public view. Nonetheless, Delacroix still received many government commissions for murals and ceiling paintings. Following the Revolution of 1848 that saw the end of the reign of Louis Philippe, Liberty Leading the People, was finally put on display by the newly elected President, Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) and is now on exhibit in the Louvre. The boy holding a gun up on the right is sometimes thought to be an inspiration of the Gavroche character in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables.

In 1832, Delacroix traveled to Spain and North Africa, as part of a diplomatic mission to Morocco shortly after the French conquered Algeria. He went not primarily to study art, but in hopes of seeing a more primitive culture than Paris offered. He eventually produced over 100 paintings and drawings of scenes from or based on the life of the people of North Africa, and added a new and personal chapter to the European interest in Orientalism. Delacroix was entranced by the people and the costumes, and the trip influenced the subject matter of a great many of his future paintings. He believed that the North Africans, in their attire and their attitudes, provided a visual equivalent to the people of Classical Rome and Greece:

The Greeks and Romans are here at my door, in the Arabs who wrap themselves in a white blanket and look like Cato or Brutus.

 

He managed to sketch some women secretly in Algiers, as in the painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834), but generally he encountered difficulty in finding Muslim women to pose for him because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered. Less problematic was the painting of Jewish women in North Africa, as subjects for the Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1837–41).

In 1838 Delacroix exhibited Medea about to Kill Her Children, which created a sensation at the Salon. The painting depicts Medea clutching her children, dagger drawn to slay them in vengeance for her abandonment by Jason.

From 1833 Delacroix received numerous commissions to decorate public buildings in Paris. In that year he began work for the Salon du Roi in the Chambre des Députés, Palais Bourbon, which was not completed until 1837, and began a lifelong friendship with the female artist Marie-Élisabeth Blavot-Boulanger. For the next ten years he painted in both the Library at the Palais Bourbon and the Library at the Palais du Luxembourg. In 1843 he decorated the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement with a large Pietà, and from 1848 to 1850 he painted the ceiling in the Galerie d’Apollon of the Louvre. From 1857 to 1861 he worked on frescoes for the Chapelle des Anges at the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. The work was fatiguing, and during these years he suffered from an increasingly fragile constitution. In addition to his home in Paris, from 1844 he also lived at a small cottage in Champrosay, where he found respite in the countryside. From 1834 until his death, he was faithfully cared for by his housekeeper, Jeanne-Marie le Guillou, who zealously guarded his privacy, and whose devotion prolonged his life and his ability to continue working in his later years.

The winter of 1862-63 was challenging for Delacroix. He was suffering from a bad throat infection which seemed to get worse during the winter. On June 16th 1863, he was getting better and returned to his house in the country. On July 15th he was so sick he went back to see his doctor who realized he could not do anything more for him, by then, the only food he could eat was fruit. Eugene realized his condition and wrote his Will, for all his friends he left a memento. For his trusted housekeeper, Jenny Le Guillou, he left enough for her to live on and ordered everything in his studio to be sold. He also inserted a clause forbidding any representation of his features “whether by a death-mask or by drawing or by photography. I forbid it expressly.” On August 13th Delacroix died, with Jenny by his side. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

This still life attributed to Delacroix appears to be an odd conflation of images: English huntsmen on horseback in the background, and lobsters plus assorted game in the foreground. But it reminds me of this quote of his:

In the midst of the activities that distract me, such as shooting partridges in the woods, when I remember a few lines of poetry, when I recall some sublime painting, my spirit is roused to indignation and spurns the vain sustenance of the common herd.

Not much to go on, to be sure, but it’s a start. Escoffier has this section on partridges, which is fairly typical for 19th century Parisian cuisine:

3949 Partridge

Wrap each partridge in a buttered vine leaf then in a thin slice of salt pork fat and roast in a hot oven for 20 minutes or on a spit for 25 minutes.

Place on a Crouton of bread fried in butter and coated with Gratin Forcemeat “C” (# 295), and garnish with half a lemon and a bouquet of watercress.

3950 Perdreau Truffé—Truffled Partridge

Stuff the bird in the same way as for Dindonneau Truffé (# 3914) allowing 100 g (31 oz) fresh pork fat and 80 g (2 oz) truffles; cover with thin slices of salt pork fat and roast in a moderate oven for 25 minutes.

Partridges are rather small, so you need to allow one per diner. They are not very fatty either, so wrapping the breasts in some kind of ham or bacon before roasting is generally recommended by chefs. The flesh of the partridge is not strong, so adding too much to a dish of partridge will mask the subtle flavor. Escoffier’s second recipe here seems close to ideal (although I am not generally well off enough to afford truffles). The pork fat does not flavor the partridge unduly, but allows the bird to remain moist when roasting – as does roasting at a very high temperature as briefly as possible. For all game birds I find simplicity is best. If you want to be extravagant with your flavorings and whatnot, stuff and roast a chicken. If you want a gravy for partridge, make a roux of the pan juices and flour, and then add some chicken stock with, maybe, a little fresh parsley. Simple.

Jan 222018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, Sardinian-born, Italian social theorist best remembered for his concept of cultural hegemony. He is sometimes characterized as a Marxist, sometimes a neo-Marxist, because he accepted the historical reality of class struggle, and a need for a revolution for equality by the working class. But he did not accept Marx’s view of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, nor of Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini as a dangerous intellectual, and during his imprisonment he wrote more than 30 notebooks (over 3,000 pages), of history and social analysis. His Prison Notebooks are considered a major contribution to 20th century economic, social, and political theory.

Gramsci was born in Ales, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937). Francesco was a low-level government official of Albanian descent who was always in financial difficulty, and was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Gramsci had to abandon schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father’s release in 1904. As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci’s sympathies then did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners. They perceived their neglect as a result of privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrializing North, and they tended to turn to a growing Sardinian nationalism which was brutally repressed by troops from the Italian mainland. In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants on the Italian mainland. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913, where he later occupied a key position.

Although showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in early 1915. From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist. In 1916, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organization of Turin workers; he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin’s leading socialists when he was both elected to the party’s Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919, with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini, Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo. In October the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the communist Amadeo Bordiga.

Among tactical debates within the party, Gramsci’s group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers’ councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci, these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organizing production. The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement convinced Gramsci that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “abstentionist” faction. On 21 January 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia – PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which opposed Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Gramsci was a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s program until he lost the leadership in 1924

In 1922, Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom he married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio (born 1924) and Giuliano (born 1926). Gramsci never saw his second son. The Russian mission coincided with the advent of fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy, too, while the Communist Party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito Mussolini’s government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife. In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità, living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

On 9th November 1926, the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to the Roman prison Regina Coeli. At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He received an immediate sentence of five years in confinement on the island of Ustica and the following year he received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Turi, near Bari. Over 11 years in prison, his health deteriorated. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food. He had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.

In 1933 he was moved from the prison at Turi to a clinic at Formia, but was still being denied adequate medical attention. Two years later he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome. He was due for release on 21 April 1937 and planned to retire to Sardinia for convalescence, but a combination of arteriosclerosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, high blood pressure, angina, gout and acute gastric disorders meant that he was too ill to move. Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. His ashes are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology over and above violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

Gramsci’s key point, as far as I am concerned, is that Marx’s conviction that the revolution of the working class against capitalism was an inevitable result of the forces of economic determinism, was in error. He believed that an intellectual revolution was an important precursor of social/economic revolution. To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Gramsci hit the nail squarely on the head, especially in light of affairs in the West these days. Without too much provocation I could launch into a long rant. I’ll try to keep it short. Right now, moneyed interests control the media which means that they control the discourse. Media do not just include news outlets, but also entertainment. All these outlets reinforce the “normal” values of society, which at present include a distrust of intellectuals, and a distrust of education. Consequently, information that benefits moneyed interests – including misinformation and disinformation – can be disseminated with little or no critical reception by the general public.

Gramsci’s native Sardinia has a cuisine that overlaps that of mainland Italy, but with a few idiosyncrasies. One of these is a distinctive pasta called fregola or fregula. Fregola are semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. Fregola with clams is a common dish in Sardinia. It is usually served with pane carasau, a thin and crisp flatbread.

Fregola con Vongole

Ingredients

4 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups tomato, diced (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine
coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups fregola

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, plus hot pepper flakes and pepper to taste.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley and simmer for 5 for minutes.

Place the clams, in a single layer, on top of the mixture and cover tightly. Cook over moderately high heat until the clams open, probably about 5 mins.  Discard any clams that do not open.  As they open, scoop out the clams into a large bowl.  Repeat with a second batch, if required.

When all the clams are cooked, add 4 cups of chicken broth to the tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add the fregola pasta.  Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 15 minutes).

Taste, and adjust seasonings. Usually extra salt is not necessary. Return the clams to reheat for a minute or two, then serve garnished with chopped parsley. If you can find it, serve with Sardinian flatbread.

Nov 212017
 

Today is probably the birthday (1694) of François-Marie Arouet, known to posterity by his nom de plume: Voltaire. He was known in his day, and still is, for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. For these, and other “sins,” he was imprisoned in France and then exiled for some time. In addition, life was frequently made uncomfortable for him in his native Paris. But he stuck to his guns, suffering the usual fate of those who criticize (or in his case ridicule) the powers that be. He was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.

Voltaire was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children of François Arouet (19 August 1649 – 1 January 1722), a lawyer who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite Daumard (c. 1660 – 13 July 1701), whose family was on the lowest rank of the French nobility. Some speculation surrounds Voltaire’s date of birth, because he claimed he was born on 20 February 1694 as the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Guérin de Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Two of his older brothers—Armand-François and Robert—died in infancy and his surviving brother, Armand, and sister Marguerite-Catherine were 9 and 7 years older, respectively. Voltaire was baptized on 22 November 1694, with François de Castagnère, abbé de Châteauneuf, and Marie Daumard, the wife of his mother’s cousin, standing as godparents. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English.

By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands, the marquis de Châteauneuf, the brother of Voltaire’s godfather. At The Hague, Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer (known as ‘Pimpette’). Their scandalous affair was discovered by de Châteauneuf and Voltaire was forced to return to France by the end of the year.

Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government. These activities were to result in two imprisonments and a temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused the Régent of incest with his own daughter, led to an 11-month imprisonment in the Bastille (16 May 1717 to 15 April 1718 in a windowless cell with ten-foot thick walls). The Comédie-Française had agreed in January 1717 to stage his debut play, Œdipe, and it opened in mid-November 1718, seven months after his release. Its immediate critical and financial success established his reputation. Both the Régent and King George I of Great Britain presented Voltaire with medals as a mark of their appreciation.

He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy, along the lines of the British monarchy, that protected people’s rights against absolutism.

He adopted the name “Voltaire” in 1718, following his incarceration at the Bastille. Its origin is unclear. It is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of le jeune (“the young”). According to a family tradition among the descendants of his sister, he was known as le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”) as a child, and he resurrected a variant of the name in his adult life. The name also reverses the syllables of Airvault, his family’s home town in the Poitou region.

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that, if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A postscript explains: “J’ai été si malheureux sous le nom d’Arouet que j’en ai pris un autre surtout pour n’être plus confondu avec le poète Roi”, (I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.) This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the ‘oi’ diphthong was then pronounced like modern ‘ouai’, so the similarity to ‘Arouet’ is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Who knows?

Voltaire came under a lot of criticism in his lifetime for his open mindedness about numerous subjects, especially religion. The accusation that he was anti-Semitic is unfair, I believe. He disliked most religions, especially the faiths of Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), quite equally. He did approve of Hinduism, however, because it had a distinct openness to a variety of avenues into the spiritual.

Voltaire’s view of historiography was not absolutely original, but it was deeply influential. In his article on “History” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie he wrote, “One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population.” Voltaire’s histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past it is true, but at the same time he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance, and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.

His Essay on Customs traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet’s Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Middle Eastern civilization, but was rather weak on the Middle Ages on the whole. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to expose the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed.

I could go on, but you can read Voltaire for yourself. Here’s a few quotes I enjoy.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.

In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero after years of (mostly self-imposed) exile from the capital. He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath. According to one story of his last words, his response to a priest at his deathbed urging him to renounce Satan was “Now is not the time for making new enemies.” However, this appears to have originated from a joke first published in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1856, and was only attributed to Voltaire in the 1970s.

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne, where his companion’s, Marie Louise Mignot’s, brother was abbé. His heart and brain were embalmed separately

One final quote:

Ice-cream is exquisite – what a pity it isn’t illegal.

Ice cream was popularized in the 18th century by French and Italian chefs and caught on in England. You had to keep ice in an ice house, collected in winter and stored until summer, but with it you could use a forerunner of the modern ice-cream churn, the sabotiere, probably invented in Naples in the 17th century. Frozen ices, akin to sorbets, were more common than ice cream, but I am sure Voltaire meant ice cream using cream and eggs.

Italian chef Domenico Negri who worked in London in the 1760s popularized continental ice cream. His apprentice Frederick Nutt published The Complete Confectioner in 1789, giving 32 recipes for ice cream and 24 for water ices.

This one is interesting. By “syrup” he means a simple syrup of half sugar and half water, boiled and cooled.

Parmesan Ice Cream

Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream put them into stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.

This one might be more what Voltaire was thinking of however:

Royal Ice Cream

Take the yolks of ten eggs and two whole eggs; beat them up well with your spoon; then take the rind of one lemon, two gills of syrup, one pint of cream, a little spice, and a little orange flower water; mix them all well and put them over the fire, stirring them all the time with your spoon; when you find it grows thick take it off, and pass it through a sieve; put it into a freezing pot, freeze it, and take a little citron , and lemon and orange peel with a few pistachio nuts blanched; cut them all and mince them with your ice before you put them in your moulds.

Oct 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1819) of the Báb (“the door/gate”), whose birth name was Sayyed ʿAli Muhammad Shirāzi (سيد علی ‌محمد شیرازی‎‎ —  descendant of the prophet Ali Muhammad from Shiraz), the founder of Bábism, and one of the central figures of the Azali and Bahá’í faiths. His birthday is celebrated in the Bahá’í tradition on this date using the Gregorian calendar rather than the Islamic or Bahá’í calendars. He is considered to be a figure rather like John the Baptist in the Christian tradition, that is, a forerunner who prepared the way for Bahá’u’lláh. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ascension-of-bahaullah/ ). He also has followers in his own right. Bahá’ís claim that the Báb was the spiritual return of Elijah and John the Baptist, that he was the saoshyant referred to in Zoroastrianism, and that he was the forerunner of their own religion. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was a follower of the Báb and claimed to be the fulfillment of his promise that God would send another messenger. What follows gets a bit detailed and I understand if it is a bit much to digest for a simple daily post. I do think it is important, however, to glimpse the historical evolution of branches of Islam. The average non-Muslim Westerner doesn’t even know the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, let alone the branches of these main denominations.

The Báb was born in Shiraz to a middle-class merchant of the city. His father was Muhammad Ridá, and his mother was Fátimih (1800–1881), a daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. She later became a Bahá’í. His father died while he was quite young and he was raised by his maternal uncle, Hájí Mírzá Siyyid `Alí, who was also a merchant. He claimed to be a descendant from Muhammad (a sayyid) through Husayn ibn Ali through both his parents. When he was in Shiraz his uncle sent him to maktab (primary school) and he was there for 6 to 7 years. Some time between when he was 15 and 20, he joined his uncle in the family business, a trading house, and became a merchant in the city of Bushehr in Iran, near the Persian Gulf. Some of his earlier writings suggest that he did not enjoy the business and instead applied himself to the study of religious literature. One of his contemporary followers described him as,

. . . very taciturn, and  would never utter a word unless it was absolutely necessary. He did not even answer our questions. He was constantly absorbed in his own thoughts, and was preoccupied with repetition of his prayers and verses. He was a handsome man with a thin beard, dressed in clean clothes, wearing a green shawl and a black turban.

An English physician him as a young man by saying: “He was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much.

In 1842 he married Khadíjih-Bagum (1822–1882); he was 23 and she was 20. She was the daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. They had only one child, a boy named Ahmad who died the year he was born (1843). The pregnancy jeopardized Khadijih’s life and she never conceived again. The young couple occupied a modest house in Shiraz along with the Báb’s mother. Later, Khadijih became a Bahá’í.

In the 1790s in Persia, Shaykh Ahmad (1753–1826) began a religious movement within Twelver Shia Islam. His followers, who became known as Shaykhis, were expecting the imminent appearance of the al-Qa’im of the Ahl al-Bayt also called “the Mahdi” (the 12th (hidden) Imam, somewhat akin to a Messiah, whom some Twelver Muslims believe will appear at the second coming of Jesus). After the death of Shaykh Ahmad, leadership was passed on to Kazim Rashti (1793–1843). In 1841 the Báb went on pilgrimage to Iraq, and for seven months stayed mostly in and around Karbala. There he is believed to have met Kazim Rashti, who showed a high regard for him. He is believed to have attended some of Kazim Rashti’s lectures. On his death bed in December 1843, Kazim Rashti counselled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Mahdi, who, according to his prophecies, would soon appear. One of these followers, Mullá Husayn, after keeping vigil for 40 days in a mosque, travelled to Shiraz, where he met the Báb.

The Báb’s first religious inspirational experience, witnessed by his wife, is dated to about the evening of 3 April 1844. The Báb’s first public connection with his sense of a mission came with the arrival of Mullá Husayn in Shiraz. On the night of 22 May, Mullá Husayn was invited by the Báb to his home. On that night Mullá Husayn told him that he was searching for the possible successor to Kazim Rashti, the Promised One. The Báb told Mullá Husayn that he was Kazim Rashti’s successor and the bearer of divine knowledge. Mullá Husayn became the first to accept the Báb’s claims to be an inspired figure and a likely successor to Kazim Rashti. The Báb had replied satisfactorily to all of Mullá Husayn’s questions and had written in his presence, with extreme rapidity, a long tafsir (commentary) on surah “Yusuf”, which has come to be known as the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ and is considered the Báb’s first revealed work.

Mullá Husayn was the Báb’s first disciple. Within five months, seventeen other disciples of Kazim Rashti had accepted the Báb as a Manifestation of God. Among them was one woman, Fátimih Zarrín Táj Baragháni, a poet, who later received the name of Táhirih (the Pure). These 18 disciples were later to be known as the Letters of the Living and were given the task of spreading the new faith across Iran and Iraq. The Báb emphasized the spiritual station of these 18 individuals, who, along with himself, made the first “Unity” of his religion (in Arabic, the term wāhid “unity” has a numerical value of 19 using abjad numerals). The Báb, in his book the Persian Bayán, gives the metaphorical identity of the Letters of the Living as the Fourteen Infallibles of Twelver Shi’i Islam (Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, and Fatimah) and the four archangels. In his early writings, the Báb appears to identify himself as the gate (báb) to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, and later he begins explicitly to proclaim his station as that of the Hidden Imam and a new messenger from God.

In the Báb’s early writings, the exalted identity he was claiming was unmistakable, but because of the skeptical reception of this pronouncement by many people, his writings appear to convey the impression that he is only the gate to the Hidden Twelfth Imam. To his circle of early believers, the Báb was equivocal about his exact status, gradually confiding in them that he was not merely a gate to the Hidden Imam, but the Manifestation of the Hidden Imam and the Qa’im himself. During his early meetings with Mullá Husayn, the Báb described himself as the Master and the Promised One; he did not consider himself to be simply Kazim Rashti’s successor, but claimed a prophetic status, a kind of deputy, delegated not just by the Hidden Imam but through Divine authority.

In the early phase of his declaration to the public, the title báb was emphasized as that of the gate leading to the Hidden Imam, as the Báb had told his early believers not to fully disclose his claims or reveal his name. The approach of laying claim to a lower position was intended to create a sense of anticipation for the appearance of the Hidden Imam, as well to avoid persecution and imprisonment, because a public proclamation of mahdi status could have brought upon the Báb a swift penalty of death. After a couple of months, as the Báb observed further acceptance and readiness among his believers and the public, he gradually shifted his public claim to that of the Hidden Imam. Then in his final years he publicly announced his station as a Manifestation of God.

After the eighteen Letters of the Living had accepted him, the Báb and the eighteenth Letter of the Living, Quddús, left on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. At the Kaaba in Mecca, the Báb publicly declared his claim to be the Qa’im or Mahdi. He also wrote to the Sharif of Mecca, the Custodian of the Kaaba, proclaiming his mission. After their pilgrimage, the Báb and Quddús returned to Bushehr in Iran.

Preaching by the Letters of the Living led to opposition by Islamic clergy, prompting the Governor of Shiraz to order the Báb’s arrest. The Báb, upon hearing of the arrest order, left Bushehr for Shiraz in June 1845 and presented himself to the authorities. He was placed under house arrest at the home of his uncle until a cholera epidemic broke out in the city in September 1846. The Báb was released and departed for Isfahan. There, many came to see him at the house of the imam jum’a, head of the local clergy, who became sympathetic. After an informal gathering where the Báb debated the local clergy and displayed his speed in producing instantaneous verses, his popularity soared. After the death of the governor of Isfahan, Manouchehr Khan Gorji, who had become his supporter, pressure from the clergy of the province led to the Shah, Mohammad Shah Qajar, ordering the Báb to Tehran in January 1847. After spending several months in a camp outside Tehran, and before the Báb could meet the Shah, the Prime Minister sent the Báb to Tabriz in the northwestern corner of the country, where he was imprisoned.

After forty days in Tabriz, the Báb was then transferred to the fortress of Maku in the province of Azerbaijian close to the Turkish border. During his incarceration there, the Báb began his most important work, the Persian Bayán, which he never finished. Because of the Báb’s growing popularity in Maku and the governor of Maku converting, the prime minister transferred him to the fortress of Chehriq in April 1848. In that place as well, the Báb’s popularity grew and his jailors relaxed restrictions on him. It was at this time that Áqa Bálá Big Shíshvání Naqshbandí painted the only known portrait of the Báb. The Prime Minister ordered the Báb back to Tabriz, where the government called on religious authorities to put the Báb on trial for blasphemy and apostasy.

The trial, attended by the Crown Prince, occurred in July 1848 and involved numerous local clergy. They questioned the Báb about the nature of his claims, his teachings, and demanded that he produce miracles to prove his divine authority. They admonished him to recant his claims. There are nine extant eyewitness reports of the trial which vary somewhat in terms of the questions asked and the answers given. Only one answer is found in all nine eyewitness sources, where the Báb states that “I am that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years.”

The trial did not bring a decisive result. Some clergy called for capital punishment, but the government pressured them to issue a lenient judgement because the Báb was popular. The government asked medical experts to declare the Báb insane so that he could not be executed. It is also likely that the government, to appease the religious clergy, spread rumours that the Báb had recanted. The Shaykh al-Islām, a champion of the anti-Bábist campaign, who was not at the Báb’s trial, issued a conditional death sentence if the Báb was found to be sane. A fatwa was issued establishing the Báb’s apostasy which stated, “The repentance of an incorrigible apostate is not accepted, and the only thing which has caused the postponement of your execution is a doubt as to your sanity of mind.”

The crown prince’s physician, William Cormick, examined the Báb and complied with the government’s request to find grounds for clemency. The physician’s opinion saved the Báb from execution for a time, but the clergy insisted that he face corporal punishment instead, so the Báb suffered foot whipping (twenty lashes to the bottoms of his feet). The unsigned and undated official government report states that because of his harsh beating, the Báb (orally and in writing) recanted, apologized, and stated that he would not continue to advance claims of divinity. The document of his alleged recantation was written shortly after his trial in Tabriz. Some authors believe that the assertions were made to embarrass the Báb and undermine his credibility with the public and that the language of this document is very different from the Báb’s usual style, so that it could have been prepared by the authorities.

After the trial, the Báb was ordered back to the fortress of Chehríq. In mid-1850 a new prime-minister, Amir Kabir, ordered the execution of the Báb, probably because various Bábí insurrections had been defeated and the movement’s popularity appeared to be waning. The Báb was brought back to Tabriz from Chehriq for an execution by firing squad. The night before his execution, as he was being conducted to his cell, a young Bábí, Muhammad-Ali “Anis” from Zonuz, threw himself at the feet of the Báb and begged to be killed with him. He was immediately arrested and placed in the same cell as the Báb.

On the morning of July 9, 1850, the Báb was taken to the courtyard of the barracks in which he was being held, where thousands of people had gathered to watch his execution. The Báb and Anís were suspended on a wall and a large firing squad of Christian soldiers prepared to shoot. Numerous eye-witness reports, including those of Western diplomats, recount the result. The order was given to fire and the barracks square filled with musket smoke. When it cleared, the Báb was no longer in the courtyard and his companion stood there unharmed. The bullets apparently had not harmed either man, but had cut the rope suspending them from the wall. There was a great commotion, many in the crowd believing the Báb had ascended to heaven or simply disappeared. But the soldiers subsequently found the Báb in another part of the barracks, completely unharmed, giving his final instructions to his secretary. He and Anis were tied up for execution a second time, a second firing squad of Muslim soldiers was ranged in front of them, and a second order to fire was given. This time, the Báb and his companion were killed. In Bábí and Bahá’í tradition, the failure of the first firing squad to kill the Báb is believed to have been a miracle. Their corpses were dumped outside the gates of the town to be eaten by animals.

The corpses, however, were clandestinely rescued by a handful of Bábis and were hidden. Over time the remains were secretly transported according to instructions of Bahá’u’lláh and then `Abdu’l-Bahá by way of Isfahan, Kirmanshah, Baghdad and Damascus, to Beirut and thence by sea to Acre on the plain below Mount Carmel in 1899. On March 21, 1909, the remains were then interred in a special tomb, the Shrine of the Báb, erected for this purpose by `Abdu’l-Bahá, on Mount Carmel in present-day Haifa in Israel. The Bahá’í World Centre is located close to this site.

Bahá’ís and Bábis treat today as a holy day, ceasing work and holding festive gatherings. Something Persian/Iranian is suitable and I have chosen an eggplant and tomato stew, Khoresh Bademjan, which is very popular. It usually contains meat of some sort – lamb or beef – but I am giving a vegan version here because many Bahá’ís and Bábis (not all), refrain from eating meat. Given that the dish’s main ingredients are eggplants and tomatoes, which are New World cultigens, it’s not an ancient dish by any means. But, given that the Báb lived in the 19th century an ancient dish is not called for. One of the main ingredients is pomegranate molasses. I give a recipe for here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cyrus-the-great/  or you can buy it online. The dish is normally accompanied by a yoghurt sauce, and should be served with rice.

Khoresh Bademjan

Ingredients

For the Eggplant and Tomato Stew:

1 ½ pounds eggplant, stemmed, peeled, and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled, and finely sliced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled, and finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp sea salt (plus extra for salting the eggplant)
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, drained
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 pinch saffron

For the Yogurt Herb Sauce:

6 oz plain yogurt
¼ cup fresh, chopped dill
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
salt

Instructions

Place the eggplant in a large colander set over a bowl. Sprinkle generously with sea or kosher salt and set aside. For 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Heat the ¼ cup of olive oil over medium high heat in a Dutch oven or deep, heavy skillet. Add the onions and sauté until they are soft and translucent, and beginning to brown in spots. Add the garlic, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and salt, and sauté about a minute longer, stirring until the onions are coated and the spices are aromatic.

Press the eggplant well in the colander to release trapped fluid, and then turn it out on to paper towels and pat dry.    Add the eggplant to the pan. Drizzle the pan with the extra 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté, turning to coat the eggplant in the onion and spice mixture. Continue until the eggplant is tender and shrinks in volume (about 10 15 minutes).

Stir in the tomatoes, using a wooden spoon to break them into chunks. Add ½ cup of water, pomegranate molasses, and saffron. Stir well. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook covered for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To make the yogurt sauce mix together the yogurt, dill, garlic, and salt to taste in a small bowl. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. The sauce can be made several hours ahead.

To serve top with the yogurt sauce, and extra fresh chopped herbs, if desired.

May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.