Jan 182018
 

Today is the birthday (1779) of Peter Mark Roget FRS, noted popularly for the creation of the first thesaurus, but who spent most of his life as a physician, and published works in medicine and natural theology before he became a lexicographer. Roget was born in London. His obsession with list-making was well established by the time he was 8 years old. Roget was the son of a Swiss clergyman, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his degree in 1798. His life was marked by several depressing incidents. His father and his wife died young, and his favorite maternal uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly, committed suicide in his presence. Romilly was distraught at the death of his wife, and in a fit of delirium he sprang from his bed and slashed his throat with a straight razor. Roget was powerless to save him. Subsequently, Roget struggled with depression for most of his life, presumably resulting from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and his work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle his depression.

Roget retired from professional life in 1840, and in about 1848 began preparing for publication the work that was to perpetuate his memory. For some reason he decided to build a catalogue of words organized by their meanings, starting in 1805. This was apparently an avocation bordering on obsession. I know how that goes. Its first printed edition, in 1852, was called Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. During his lifetime the work had 28 printings. After his death it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget (1828–1908), and later by John’s son, Samuel Romilly Roget (1875–1952).

Roget was greatly concerned with medical education, but the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester was not established until 1874. He was also one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine, and he was a secretary of the Royal Society. In 1815, he invented the log-log slide rule, allowing a person to perform exponential and root calculations simply. This was especially helpful for calculations involving fractional powers and roots. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, and he was examiner in physiology in the University of London.

On 9 December 1824, Roget presented a paper entitled “Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures.” This article is often incorrectly referenced as either “On the Persistence of Vision with Regard to Human Motion” or “Persistence of Vision with regard to Moving Objects,” likely due to erroneous citations by film historians Terry Ramsaye and Arthur Knight. While Roget’s explanation of the illusion was probably wrong, his consideration of the illusion of motion is seen as an important point in the history of film, and possibly influenced the development of the Thaumatrope, the Phenakistiscope, and the Zoetrope.

He wrote numerous papers on physiology and health, among them the fifth Bridgewater Treatise, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology (1834), a two-volume work on phrenology (1838), and articles for several editions of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Roget also played a role in the establishment of the University of London. He was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and wrote a series of popular manuals for it. He showed remarkable ingenuity in inventing and solving chess problems and designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard.

Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire, aged 90, and is buried there in the cemetery of St James’s Church.

The word “thesaurus” in English originally meant a “treasure” or “storehouse,” but now it means a dictionary of synonyms due to Roget’s use of the word for his book. It can also be used figuratively as in a Cook’s Thesaurus where “synonyms” means “substitute ingredients.” Just as you can use “tome” or “volume” in place of “book” (under the right conditions), you can substitute spinach for cabbage (also under the right conditions). I have found this online cook’s thesaurus quite useful on occasion: http://www.foodsubs.com/ . As the URL suggests, the site is about finding substitutes for ingredients in recipes, and here I am of two minds. If I am making a gravy using Worcestershire sauce and I am out of it, I can’t make the gravy. There is no substitute for Worcestershire sauce. A cook’s thesaurus will tell me to substitute soy sauce, and I am sure the resulting gravy will be good, but it’s not what I want. I put cilantro in my guacamole, but if I don’t have cilantro, I can use parsley, but it will not be the same. I can also use lemon juice instead of lime juice. It will prevent the avocado from turning brown and will give a citrus tang, but it will not be the same. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am adamant about using indigenous ingredients wherever I am in the world. In Myanmar they use an aquatic species in the convolvulus genus, related to morning glory, called rwat, in many dishes. In English they call it watercress, but it is nothing like European watercress. Trying to make these dishes without rwat is a waste of time.

All that said, there can be a great deal of creativity in changing one ingredient for another if you are not trying to make a dish in a particularly authentic or local way. A few posts ago I talked about taking the basic recipe for eggs Benedict and changing out one of the ingredients:  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benedict-arnold/  Now we are in vastly different territory. Substituting for the sake of novelty or creativity is a completely different ball game, and I’m down with it. A thesaurus for cooks is not the only tool in the box, but it’s a good start. Flour is an excellent place to start. There are many different types of wheat flour and replacing one with another can be great or can be dangerous. I’m talking about replacing wheat flour with flour from another grain, or even a non-grain. Here you do have to be very careful because things can go horribly wrong. But you can try barley flour or oat flour in bread, for example. Or you can be even more adventurous and use almond flour instead of wheat flour in cakes or pancakes. It’s not a bad idea to substitute half and half (half wheat flour, half other flour) first, to see how it goes. Here’s a recipe for almond flour brownies. It’s not just good for people with wheat allergies; it is delicious. The quality of the cocoa powder you use is very important; also the almond flour. I generally make my own, but it is easy to find in health food stores or online.

Almond Flour Brownies

Ingredients

5 tbsp butter, melted
1 ¾ cups sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
butter for greasing

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Use butter to grease an 8″ square pan that is at least 2″ deep.

Stir together the melted butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, cocoa, and eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir in the almond flour and baking powder, and mix well so that there are no dry pockets, but do not beat vigorously.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, using a spatula to make sure that it is spread evenly in the pan and the top is flat and smooth.

Bake the brownies for about 35 minutes. The top should be set, and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. It is all right if the toothpick is a little moist or if there is a speck of chocolate at the edge.

Let the brownies cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then cut them into squares and serve immediately. If you are not ready to serve them straightaway, store them in an airtight tin at room temperature. They also freeze well.

Oct 032015
 

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Today is the birthday of James Alfred “Alf” Wight, a British veterinary surgeon and writer, who wrote under the pen name James Herriot. He used his lifetime of experiences as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales to write a series of books of stories about animals and their owners the best known of which are often referred to collectively as All Creatures Great and Small.

Wight was born in Sunderland, County Durham to James and Hannah (Bell) Wight. Shortly after their wedding, the Wights moved from Brandling Street, Sunderland to Glasgow where James took work as both a ship plater and pianist for a local cinema, while Hannah was a singer, as well as a dressmaker. For Alf’s birth, his mother returned to Sunderland, taking him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. From his father he gained a passion for Sunderland Football Club and remained a lifelong fan. In 1992 he was named a Life President of the club.

In 1939, at the age of 23, he qualified as a veterinary surgeon with Glasgow Veterinary College. In January 1940, he took a brief job at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, but moved in July to work in a rural practice based at 23 Kirkgate in the town of Thirsk, Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury, known as Helen Alderson in his books. The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 13 February 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a physician in general practice.

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Wight served in the Royal Air Force in 1942. His wife moved to her parents’ house during this time and, upon being discharged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftman, Wight joined her. They lived there until 1946, at which point they moved back to Kirkgate, staying until 1953. Later, he moved with his wife to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now a museum, “The World of James Herriot.”. He later moved with his family to the village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk, where he resided until his death. Wight intended for years to write a book, but with most of his time consumed by veterinary practice and family, his writing ambition went nowhere. Challenged by his wife, in 1966 (at the age of 50), he began writing. After several rejected stories on other subjects like football, he turned to what he knew best. In 1969 Wight wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the now-famous series based on his life working as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

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Owing in part to professional etiquette, which at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals from advertising their services, he took a pen name, choosing “James Herriot” after seeing the Scottish goalkeeper, Jim Herriot, play for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United. If Only They Could Talk was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd, but sales were slow until Thomas McCormack, of St. Martin’s Press in New York City, received a copy and arranged to have it and a second book, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1972), published as a single volume in the United States. The resulting book, titled All Creatures Great and Small, was a huge success, spawning numerous sequels, movies and a successful television adaptation.

Contrary to popular belief, Wight’s books are only partially autobiographical, with many of the stories being only loosely based on real events or people. Wight’s son, Jim, states that a lot of the stories, although set in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s in the books, were actually inspired by cases that Wight attended in the 1960s and 1970s.

James Herriot on his farm, Yorkshire, Britain - 1995

From an historical standpoint, the stories help document a transitional period in veterinary medicine in Britain. Agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (in Britain, primarily the draught horse) to reliance upon the mechanical tractor, and medical science was just on the cusp of discovering antibiotics and other drugs that eliminated many of the ancient remedies that were still in use at the time. These and other sociological factors, like increased affluence, prompted a large-scale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century from a period when virtually all of a vet’s time was spent working with large animals such as horses (motive power in both town and country), cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, to mostly dogs, cats, and other pets. Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of his narrative to comment, with the benefit of hindsight, on the primitive state of veterinary medicine at the time of the story he is relating; for example, he describes his first hysterectomy on a cat and his first (almost disastrous) Caesarean section on a cow.

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The Herriot books are described often as “animal stories” (Wight himself was known to refer to them as his “little cat-and-dog stories”), and given that they are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of the stories. Yet animals play a lesser, sometimes even a negligible, role in many of Wight’s tales: the overall theme of his stories is Yorkshire country life. It is Wight’s observations of people, animals, and their close inter-relationship, which give his writing its flavor. Wight was just as interested in their owners as he was in his patients and his writing is, at root, an amiable but keen comment on the human condition. The Yorkshire animals provide the elements of pain and drama; the role of their owners is to feel and express joy and sadness in what is a special, old-fashioned Yorkshire way. As such the books are evocative of a time and place now mostly lost to modern culture and technology.

History feature for Nov7: Alf Wight (aka james Herriot)

Wight’s son, in his biography of his father, reports that he was given to long bouts of depression especially in his 40s. Wight himself was unable to describe the feelings except to refer to them as “melancholy,” or “the vapors.” He underwent a series of treatments, including electro-shock, without much effect. Wight’s son attributes the depression to a combination of feeling as if he failed his parents and was inadequate as a father. His mother’s work as a dressmaker put her in touch with wealthy families, and she had aspirations that James would marry into that class. In consequence she and her husband scrimped so as to send him to expensive private schools. When he became engaged to a regular middle class woman, his mother was so disappointed that she would not attend the wedding, nor did his father. Wight could not afford to send his son and daughter to private schools, and this fact preyed on him even though both felt that they had had a good education at their state schools and would not have fared any better at private schools. His son followed him into veterinary practice, and his daughter, who was accepted to both Oxford and Cambridge, became a family physician.

In his books, Wight calls the town where Herriot lives and works, Darrowby, which he based largely on the towns of Thirsk and Sowerby.

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Wight was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, and underwent treatment in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died on 23 February 1995, aged 78, at home in Thirlby. His wife, Joan Wight née Danbury, died four years later on 14 July 1999.

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The parkin of the Yorkshire Dales is legendary. It is a sticky, moist gingerbread made rather dense with the addition of oats. I used to make it all the time in the winter, sometimes adding a cup of chopped rhubarb (common in Yorkshire), for a little extra density and tartness. Letting the finished parkin mellow for up to a week is essential.

Yorkshire Parkin

Ingredients

8 oz/220g soft butter
4 oz/110g soft, dark brown sugar
2oz / 55g black treacle
7oz / 200g golden syrup/ corn syrup
5oz/ 120g oatmeal
7 oz/ 200g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger (or more if you fancy)
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tbsp milk

Instructions

Heat the oven to 275°F/140°C

Thoroughly grease an 8″ x 8″/ 20cm x 20cm square cake tin. Parkin is sticky, so do this well.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir well.

Melt together the butter, sugar, treacle, and golden syrup over a gentle heat in a heavy pan. Do not allow the mixture to boil. Just be sure the butter is melted, the sugar is dissolved, and the treacle and golden syrup are of pouring consistency.

Gradually add the heated mixture stirring to the dry ingredients, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until they are completely mixed. This is heavy work – take your time to be sure everything is well mixed.

Beat the eggs and milk together and then add them slowly to the batter, stirring well until you have an homogenous mass.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and cook for 1½ hours until firm and set and a dark golden brown. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

Remove the parkin from the oven and leave it to cool in the tin on a wire rack. Once cool, turn out the parkin and store it in an airtight container for at least 3 days up to a week. In this way the flavors develop and the parkin becomes moist and sticky.

 

 

Sep 102015
 

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Today is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) and works in association with World Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Month. WSPD has a number of goals, prime of which is to raise awareness along with removing the stigma of talking about suicide. Suicide is not a simple issue; it does not have simple causes, and, therefore, does not have simple solutions. I am neither a clinician nor an expert, but I have been touched by suicide directly and indirectly – everyone has. Although it has been over a year, many, many people are still saddened by Robin Williams’ suicide and seek answers. Off the top of my head I can list dozens of suicides, and I am sure you can too.

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The harder issue to deal with is what to do about it. To address this you have to try to understand the causes of suicide, which is far from easy because there are so many. Depression tops the list, and, there too, there are no easy explanations. Depression comes in many forms; sometimes it is situational, sometimes it is clinical. The most important thing to know is that depression is not simply sadness or unhappiness, and cannot be cured simply by cheering the depressed person up. To those who have not experienced depression it can seem unfathomable. You often hear people say things like, “why did he kill himself, he had so much to live for?” This shows a clear lack of understanding of suicide and depression. Being in the public eye as a sports figure, musician, comedian, or actor may look good to others – a reason to live – but it may be a form of self medication that ultimately fails for one reason or another.

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Let me be clear, depression is not the only cause of suicide by any means, even though it is a big one. People can be driven to suicide for any number of reasons – bullying, chronic pain, seemingly impossible life circumstances, crushing debt, you name it.

This site – www.save.org – is an excellent resource. S.A.V.E stands for Suicide Awareness Voices for Education.

Here, for example, is a sample from their page on Common Misconceptions:

“People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.”

Not True. Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said, may indicate serious suicidal feelings.

“Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy.”

Not True. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They may be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Extreme distress and emotional pain are always signs of mental illness but are not signs of psychosis.

“If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop him/her.”

Not True. Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, and most waiver until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to end their pain. Most suicidal people do not want to die; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

“People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help.”

Not True. Studies of adult suicide victims have shown that more then half had sought medical help within six months before their deaths and a majority had seen a medical professional within 1 month of their death.

“Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.”

Not True. You don’t give a suicidal person ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true — bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.

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I am not going to give a lot of advice because all circumstances are different, thus, help comes in many different forms. The only advice I think that is useful is to educate yourself. Don’t think that you can puzzle it out by yourself. You need help and guidance from others. Plenty of people, both professional and non-professional, have experience that they are more than willing to share. Seek them out.

Just as there is no general “recipe” for helping people who are suicidal there is no food recipe that fills the bill. However, depressed and suicidal people do need our comfort in one form or another. So I thought it might be helpful to talk about comfort food. I ask a “question of the day” at the beginning of every class so that everyone speaks and is comfortable speaking, and everyone feels included. One question I ask a lot is “what is your favorite comfort food?” Mac and cheese is a biggie in the U.S., as is chocolate. Some comfort foods are quirky, some remind people of childhood, it doesn’t matter. For me it is nice that people have ways of comforting themselves when need be. I used to be a big fan of Asian soup noodles – didn’t really matter what kind of soup or noodles. That was in the days when I lived elsewhere. Now that I live in China I’m rather sated on noodles, so now various kinds of dumplings in broth, preferably spicy, have taken over.

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