Nov 032017

Today is the central day (full moon) of Bon Om Touk (បុណ្យអុំទូក]), the Cambodian Royal Water Festival, that marks a reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river. The Tonlé Sap river is unique in that it reverses flow twice a year. The river runs between Tonlé Sap lake in central Cambodia and the Mekong river in Phnom Penh and its direction of flow is determined by the height of the water in the lake. At the end of the monsoon season the lake reaches its maximum height and the Mekong is at its minimum, so flow begins out of the lake into the Mekong. In May/June inflow begins.

The full moon this lunar month, the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, is considered especially fortuitous. At midnight tonight the faithful will worship in temples throughout Cambodia. They will also make offerings of, and eat, ak ambok, a special rice dish produced only for the festival. It is made by parching rice in the husk, pulverizing it flat, then mixing it with banana and coconut. Don’t try this at home !!!

I live in Phnom Penh and so get to witness Bon Om Touk first hand. All of the photos in this post are my own from this year (2017). Bon Om Touk is celebrated in various ways throughout Cambodia, but the biggest and most famous festival takes place in Phnom Penh. Websites say that millions flock here each year, from parts of Cambodia and abroad, but I think that “millions” may be stretching it a bit. Walking around by day and by night has been crowded in places, but relatively easy in comparison with many other festivals I have been to world wide where you can be hemmed in on all sides.

The festival in Phnom Penh has 3 major components:

  1. Boat racing on the Tonlé Sap river.

These races take place over three days, consisting of rowing teams from all over Cambodia representing villages, work organizations, and other associations.  There are about 40 rowers per team, and the races take place continuously in daylight hours. They race in pairs which cross the finish line about once every minute or so. Spectators sit on the palace quay or stand on the banks. It’s not a mob scene, not least because few observers know precisely what’s going on, or who is racing at any particular time.

According to tradition the boat racing dates from the year 1177 when an enemy fleet moved upstream and across Tonlé Sap lake to sack the city of Angkor. Although they did sack it, the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII chased them down the river with his own navy and defeated them.

  1. Illuminated barges.

After dark, illuminated, highly decorated barges sail along the river in front of the palace quay. The barges represent various Cambodian agencies and associations.

3. Fireworks


Each night after dusk there are massive firework displays over the river (while the barges are sailing along). They last between 20 and 30 minutes and are non-stop barrages of light and sound.

After the activities on the river there are carnivals near the palace with food, music, and dancing.

You guessed it.  You want Cambodian festival food?  Come to Cambodia.  Here’s a video which shows that the techniques are not that difficult, but you won’t find the ingredients.  I eat this omelet all the time. It’s readily available in the market. It’s common to eat it with plain rice.

May 112017

Chang and Eng, famous conjoined twins, were born on this date in 1811.  Because they were born in the kingdom of Siam (later Thailand) they were known in the West as the “Siamese twins,” and that name, for many decades, was given to their condition in general. Obviously, though, being conjoined is not unique to SE Asians, so the term “Siamese” has been dropped to avoid ethnocentrism. Chang and Eng were born in the province of Samutsongkram, near Bangkok, in the old kingdom of Siam, so it is historically correct to call them Siamese and not Thai. Their father was Chinese, and their mother was half-Chinese and half-Malay. Because of their Chinese heritage, they were known locally as the “Chinese Twins.” They were joined in a way which nowadays would make it routine to separate them soon after birth. They had separate circulatory systems as well as independent organs, with the slight exception of their livers which were functionally separate but biologically fused.

In 1829, Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant who lived in Bangkok, saw the twins swimming and realized their potential. He paid their parents to permit him to exhibit their sons as a curiosity on a world tour. When their contract with Hunter was over, Chang and Eng went into business for themselves. In 1839, while visiting Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the brothers were attracted to the area and bought a 110-acre (0.45 km2) farm in nearby Traphill.

Determined to live as normal a life they could, Chang and Eng settled on their small plantation and bought slaves to do the work they could not do themselves. They became naturalized U.S. citizens, adopting the name “Bunker,” and married local women on April 13th 1843. Chang married Adelaide Yates (1823-1917), while Eng married her sister, Sarah Anne (1822-1892). The couples shared a bed built for four in their Traphill home. Chang and Adelaide had twelve children, and Eng and Sarah had ten. After a number of years, the sisters began to get into disputes with one another, so separate households were set up west of Mount Airy, North Carolina in the town of White Plains. The brothers alternately spent three days at each home.

During the American Civil War, Chang’s son Christopher and Eng’s son Stephen both served in the Confederate army. The twins lost most of their money with the defeat of the Confederacy and became very bitter. They returned to public exhibitions, but this time they had little success.

In 1870, Chang suffered a stroke and his health declined over the next four years. He also began drinking heavily (Chang’s drinking did not affect Eng as they did not share a circulatory system). Despite his brother’s ailing condition, Eng remained in good health. Shortly before his death, Chang was injured after falling from a carriage. He then developed a severe case of bronchitis. On January 17, 1874, Chang died while the brothers were asleep. Eng awoke to find his brother dead and cried, “Then I am going”. A doctor was summoned to perform an emergency separation, but he was too late. Eng died approximately three hours later. At the time of Eng’s death doctors attributed it to shock induced by the fear of impending death. But modern specialists discount this claim, and cannot determine his cause of death at this point.

Thai cuisine is becoming increasingly well known in the West because of a dramatic increase in the number of restaurants in the past 20 years.  They do all tend to serve much the same dishes, however, which is fine, but a bit limiting. Go to Thailand and you will find much more variety, and a greater diversity of ingredients. This website gives a fairly good sense of the greater diversity and authenticity within Thailand and historically:  One recipe from the site that comes from a 19th century cookbook is for tom kha bpet. You’ll find tom kha on menus in Thai restaurants in the West, but now it is a chicken and coconut soup.  Originally tom kha bpet was sliced duck or chicken which was poached, whole or jointed,  in coconut milk with galangal, and served with a spicy chile-garlic sauce. Here I will give you the sauce recipe only. It should not tax your cooking skills too much to figure out how to poach a chicken in coconut milk and galangal. You can find galangal at Asian markets in the West, but make sure you use young galangal.

For the sauce you need coriander roots, Thai garlic, Thai chiles, and Thai shallots. Good luck finding them in the West. I could find them sometimes in ethnic markets in Yunnan, but I’ve never seen them in the West. You want the long Thai chiles, not the tiny devil-hot ones.

Thai Charred Chile-Garlic Sauce


15 dried long Thai chiles
10 Thai shallots, unpeeled
45 gm Thai garlic, peeled
1 tbsp fermented shrimp paste
12 gm coriander root
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp Thai fish sauce
6 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp palm sugar


Over a hot grill, preferably using wood charcoal, lightly char the chiles, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste.  Keep an eagle eye on the ingredients, turning them often to avoid burning.

Peel the shallots, and either in a mortar and pestle (preferable), or in a food processor, grind all the charred ingredients together to make  a paste.

Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar and stir to mix everything thoroughly.

Serve as a dipping sauce for sliced chicken or duck.

Apr 162017

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book:  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 142016


Today is World Egg Day, established at the IEC (International Egg Commission) Vienna 1996 conference when it was decided to celebrate World Egg Day on the second Friday in October each year. I love it !! Eggs have their own commission. Well done eggs. No doubt it has a lot to do with business and hype, but . . . so what? I love eggs – chicken, duck, quail, ostrich, fish . . . doesn’t matter. I eat them all.


Here’s some of the hype from the IEC. Treat it with a pinch of salt (as you would your eggs):

Eggs are among the few foods that can be classified as a “superfood.”They are loaded with nutrients, some of which are rare in the modern diet. Here are 10 health benefits of eggs that have been confirmed in human studies.

    Eggs Are Incredibly Nutritious. Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet.A whole egg contains all the nutrients required to turn a single cell into a baby chicken.

    Eggs Are High in Cholesterol, But They Don’t Adversely Affect Blood Cholesterol

    Eggs Raise HDL (The “Good”) Cholesterol

    Eggs Contain Choline – an Important Nutrient That Most People Don’t Get Enough of

    Eggs Turn LDL Cholesterol From Small, Dense to Large: Linked to a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

    Eggs Contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin, Antioxidants That Have Major Benefits For Eye Health

    In the Case of Omega-3 or Pastured Eggs, They Lower Triglycerides as Well

    Eggs Are High in Quality Protein, With All The Essential Amino Acids in The Right Ratios

    Eggs do NOT Raise Your Risk of Heart Disease and May Reduce The Risk of Stroke

    Eggs Are Highly Fulfilling and Tend to Make You Eat Fewer Calories, Helping You to Lose Weight


A recipe du jour? Surely you jest. I loved the fact that in China duck eggs and quail eggs were as common in markets as hen’s eggs. I routinely made my omelets from duck eggs. One of my favorite street snacks there was fried quail eggs on a stick (flavored with hot spices) – 3 Yuan (50 cents). In Japan I enjoyed a raw quail egg over salmon eggs in battleship sushi.


In Argentina – onion and potato tortilla. Hands down my favorite diner food in New York is soft poached eggs over corned beef hash – the runny yolk is ambrosial.  Quiche in Lorraine. Need I go on?


For today’s first meal I made an omelet with fresh shiitake mushrooms – what I happened to have on hand. I call it “first meal” because I don’t live by the designations breakfast, lunch, dinner. I eat when I want, what I want.  The idea that eggs are breakfast food is absurd. Here’s the photo gallery for today’s omelet:

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May 142016


The second Saturday in May is set aside in the Americas, and a few other parts of the world, as International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). The day is set aside to highlight the importance of bird conservation, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty co-signed by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The Treaty is supposed to protect migratory species by limiting or banning the killing of certain species as well as seeking to curtail the destruction of their natural habitats.


The 19th century has a lot to answer for. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion, and the attendant degradation of the environment, a process that continues to this day. There is an endless conflict between the desire of industrialists to make money which may entail the destruction of forests, wetlands, and prairies, and the general pollution of the environment, versus the attempts by conservationists to preserve the habitats of wild bird species. Sadly, the industrialists tend to win out, and the public often goes along with them. Politicians can often easily sway public opinion by birds-versus-jobs rhetoric, or similar simplistic catch phrases. This is an extremely short-sighted approach. Migratory birds are not simply attractive visitors; they are vital to the ecology of the planet, which, in turn, is vital to our own survival in the long run.


The 19th century also saw the massive killing of migratory birds for food. My post on the passenger pigeon underscores this point: . In fact it was the death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 that spurred the environmental movement and, eventually, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty. Certain wildfowl seemed to be indestructibly numerous in the 19th century, so that no one thought twice about killing thousands daily for food when they were so numerous that migratory flocks could blacken the sky from horizon to horizon for hours. What’s the harm in killing some? Well, at the beginning of the 20th century they found out. Migratory birds are not an inexhaustible resource. Kill enough of them over time and they will die out.


It’s also true that standards were very different in the 19th century from now. John James Audubon is hailed as a great, naturalist, ornithologist, and conservationist because of his magnificent paintings of the birds of North America. What is not so often mentioned is that the birds he painted were dead – either shot by himself or by hunters he paid to “collect” them. Even today there is an ongoing debate about the need to kill and dissect members of endangered species as part of the effort to understand them and, therefore, protect them.

Rather than try to encompass all migratory birds I’ll focus on two broad genera that have been important to me throughout my life: hummingbirds and ducks. I never saw or was aware of hummingbirds until I moved to North America in 1975. I was dimly aware of the environment in Australia and England, but became much more intrigued when I moved to North Carolina, especially when I spent a year living in the Tidewater region and documenting the culture as a doctoral student. That’s where I first saw a hummingbird – feeding on flowers around the house where I was living (on the southern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp). In hindsight the bird was not particularly special, a male rubythroat, I’ve seen hundreds since in my own garden in New York. At the time, though, the sighting was momentous for me. At first I did not even realize that it was a bird; I thought it was a big insect. Then I took a closer look and marveled at its size, speed, and color. Its iridescent plumage was stunning and its lightning motions and sound captivated me.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

When I moved to rural New York I set about to attract hummingbirds by growing mounds of flowers, especially Monarda, and setting out feeders in my garden. My house was in the woods beside a river so it was a perfect habitat for birds in general. I always had a pair of nesting hummingbirds each summer and got to watch their mating rituals and parental habits. I was also able to observe how aggressive and territorial the males are. Fascinating.


Then in 1992 I spent a year living in New Mexico documenting pueblo culture and got to see a few more hummingbird species in the summer. The rubythroat is the only hummingbird you will find in the northeast, but the southwest is host to a whole slew of species: Allen’s, Anna’s, Berylline, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Calliope, Cinnamon, Costa’s, Lucifer, Magnificent, Plain-capped, Starthroat, Ruby-throated, Rufous,  and Violet-crowned. Fantastic !!!


Then I moved to Argentina in 2009 and the hummingbird world exploded. I spent most of my time in Buenos Aires where birds in general are not very common (except for endless pigeons). But during the migratory season some species of hummingbirds would visit the garden patio in the apartment complex where I lived – all brilliant. It was yet more exciting to travel to Iguazu in the north where hummingbirds are varied and plentiful, and where there are several sanctuaries where you can sit all day surrounded by hundreds of birds. I miss them. Hummingbirds have become my totem: they are small but very fast and determined. My study in New York was wallpapered with photos of them.

Ducks are another story. On the same visit to the marshlands of North Carolina I was deeply involved in the lives of hunters. In the winter of 1978 I went out with the hunters to build duck blinds, make decoys, and, eventually, to hunt. And, yes, I did shoot a few birds as part of the process. In those days there were stringent laws in place concerning what species were protected, and how many birds you could take in a day (with a license).

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At the turn of the 20th century market hunting was an important part of the local economy. Many of my older informants had been market gunners, and I was interested in documenting the history and culture of hunting in the region, including the traditional construction of blinds and decoys.  It’s all here if you are interested.


Then I returned 20 years later. What a shock. The ducks were nowhere near as numerous when I was there in 1978 as they had been in market hunting days, but they were still plentiful enough. In the 1990s there had been a devastating decline in their numbers despite major conservation efforts. The wetlands where the ducks bred were all polluted and choked with weeds. When I went out on the water I barely saw a duck. It was not hunting that had decimated their numbers, it was environmental degradation mostly caused by unsustainable farming practices and industry. That brought home the whole message to me. It’s no good “protecting” a species if you destroy its home.

When I lived in the Tidewater region I are my fair share of wildfowl and enjoyed it immensely. Wild birds have a taste that domestic birds cannot rival. Nowadays I wouldn’t do it though. Destruction of environments may be the major factor in reducing numbers, but hunting is not helping either. One species I am not quite so sentimental about is the urban pigeon. I didn’t have to deal with them in rural  New York, but in the cities where I have lived since – Buenos Aires, Kunming, and Mantua – they are everywhere. They have also been bred domestically for well over 100 years for meat and eggs.  I don’t recommend bashing one over the head for the stove, but they are easily available in good supermarkets – usually classified as squab.


Isabella Beeton goes on endlessly about pigeons – much more than for pigs, cows, and sheep. I have no idea why. I’ve already given her recipe for pigeon pie, so here’s stewed pigeon. You won’t have to clean store-bought birds, but the rest of the method is the same. Use light beef stock. You should be able to find mushroom ketchup.  If not use Worcestershire sauce. I prefer to brown the birds in bacon fat before stewing.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 pigeons, a few slices of bacon, 3 oz. of butter, 2 tablespoonfuls of minced parsley, sufficient stock No. 104 to cover the pigeons, thickening of butter and flour, 1 tablespoonful of mushroom ketchup, 1 tablespoonful of port wine.

Mode.—Empty and clean the pigeons thoroughly, mince the livers, add to these the parsley and butter, and put it into the insides of the birds. Truss them with the legs inward, and put them into a stewpan, with a few slices of bacon placed under and over them; add the stock, and stew gently for rather more than 1/2 hour. Dish the pigeons, strain the gravy, thicken it with butter and flour, add the ketchup and port wine, give one boil, pour over the pigeons, and serve.

Time.—Rather more than 1/2 hour. Average cost, 6d. to 9d. each.

Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons.

Seasonable from April to September.      


Feb 242016


Today is the birthday (1709) of Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist who was responsible for the creation of impressive and innovative automata and machines such as the first completely automated loom. He is credited sometimes with building the world’s first true robot, hence the “father of robotics,” but this claim is overreaching, in my humble opinion. His loom, however, was ingenious and revolutionary, and the principles on which it operated led eventually to the development of computers.

He was born in Grenoble, France in 1709 as Jacques Vaucanson (the particle “de” was later added to his name by the Académie des Sciences). The tenth child, son of a glove-maker, he grew up poor, and in his youth he reportedly aspired to become a clockmaker. He studied under the Jesuits and later joined the Order of the Minims in Lyon. It was his intention at the time to follow a course of religious studies, but he regained his interest in mechanical devices after meeting the surgeon Le Cat, from whom he would learn the details of anatomy. This new knowledge allowed him to develop his first mechanical devices that mimicked biological vital functions such as circulation, respiration, and digestion.

At just 18 years of age, Vaucanson was given his own workshop in Lyon, and a grant from a nobleman to construct a set of machines. In that same year of 1727, there was a visit from one of the governing heads of Les Minimes (an important marina in La Rochelle). Vaucanson decided to make some androids. The automata would serve dinner and clear the tables for the visiting politicians. However one government official declared that he thought Vaucanson’s tendencies “profane,” and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.

In 1737, Vaucanson built The Flute Player, a life-size figure of a shepherd that played the tabor and the pipe and had a repertoire of twelve songs. The figure’s fingers were not pliable enough to play the flute correctly, so Vaucanson had to glove the creation in skin. The following year, in early 1738, he presented this invention to the Académie des Sciences. At the time, mechanical creatures were a fad in Europe, but most could be classified as toys, and de Vaucanson’s creations were recognized as being revolutionary in their mechanical lifelike sophistication.


Later that year, he created two additional automata, The Tambourine Player and The Digesting Duck, the latter considered his masterpiece. The duck had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone, and could mimic flapping its wings, drinking water, digesting grain, and defecating. Although Vaucanson’s duck supposedly demonstrated digestion accurately, it actually contained a hidden compartment of “digested food,” so that what the duck defecated was not the same as what it ate; the duck would eat a mixture of water and seed and excrete a mixture of bread crumbs and green dye that appeared to the onlooker indistinguishable from real excrement.


Although such “frauds” were sometimes controversial, they were common enough because such scientific demonstrations needed to entertain the wealthy and powerful to attract their patronage. Vaucanson is credited as having invented the world’s first flexible rubber tube while in the process of building the duck’s intestines. Despite the revolutionary nature of his automata, he is said to have tired quickly of his creations and sold them in 1743.

In 1741 he was appointed by Cardinal Fleury, chief minister of Louis XV, as inspector of the manufacture of silk in France. He was charged with undertaking reforms of the silk manufacturing process. At the time, the French weaving industry had fallen behind that of England and Scotland. Vaucanson promoted wide-ranging changes for automation of the weaving process. In 1745, he created the world’s first completely automated loom, drawing on the work of Basile Bouchon and Jean Falcon. Vaucanson was trying to automate the French textile industry using punch cards to control looms – a technology that, as refined by Joseph-Marie Jacquard more than a half century later, would revolutionize weaving and, in the 20th century, would be used to input data into computers and store information in binary form. His proposals were not well received by weavers, however, who pelted him with stones in the street and many of his revolutionary ideas were largely ignored.


He invented several machine tools, such as the first fully documented, all metal slide rest lathe, around 1751 (possibly later). It was described in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. In 1746, he was made a member of the Académie des Sciences.


Jacques de Vaucanson died in Paris in 1782. Vaucanson left a collection of his work as a bequest to Louis XVI. The collection would become the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. His original automata have all been lost. The flute player and the tambourine player were reportedly destroyed in the Revolution. Lycee Vaucanson in Grenoble is named in his honor, and trains students for careers in engineering and technical fields.

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Grenoble, Vaucanson’s home, is the center of a well-known terroir cuisine that includes a local species of walnut, several cheeses including Le Bleu du Vercors Sassenage and Saint Marcellin, Chatreuse liqueur, made from 130 locally produced plants and whose recipe is known only by 2 Carthusian monks at a time, and wines made from Chardonnay, Jacquère and Persan, Verdesse and the very local Etraire de la Dhui grapes. Well worth a visit. For simplicity I am going to give to you sauce Grenobloise, made with capers, lemon, and butter, and used primarily for white fish. I love this sauce and make it all the time.


Sauce Grenobloise

Begin with a peeled lemon. Using a paring knife, cut the white pith away from the lemon. Remove segments by slicing between the membranes. Cut the segments into ½” pieces. Heat some good quality farm butter in a heavy skillet and keep cooking until it turns brown. Be careful because you do not want it to blacken.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the lemon pieces, some drained capers, and chopped fresh parsley. The proportions are really up to you. Stir the ingredients to incorporate.

Pour the sauce over white fish, chicken, or pasta.

Oct 292015


Sorry for the small hiatus faithful readers. I was given a week’s notice to leave China, and, after trials and tribulations, I am ensconced in Mantua in northern Italy. Hopefully I can pick up daily posting again, but do not be surprised by occasional lapses. Hey, I do this for free and there is no advertising !!!

On this date in 539 BCE Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great and Cyrus the Elder, entered Babylon as conqueror, a most momentous date in the history of the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadrezzar (misspelled in the Bible, “Nebuchadnezzar”) as punishment for rebellion. The so-called Babylonian Captivity or Babylonian Exile (or simply “the Exile”) was a crucial time in the history of Judaism (and later for Christianity). I have written a great deal about this era, as have numerous other scholars. Judaism was codified in this period when priests and people were unable to practice temple worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem. Instead they founded synagogues in Babylon where they concentrated on reading and interpreting sacred writings. I believe, as will be evident in my forthcoming publications, that Genesis was redacted (put together) at this time, and has formed an important document of faith for Jewish identity ever since.


Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire conquered all the previously civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded greatly, and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen. Under his successors, the empire eventually stretched from parts of the Balkans (Bulgaria-Pannonia) and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. His regal titles in full were The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World.


The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted somewhere between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Either before or after Babylon, he led an expedition into central Asia, which resulted in major campaigns that were described as having brought “into subjection every nation without exception”. Cyrus did not venture into Egypt, as he himself died in battle, fighting the Massagetae along the Syr Darya in December 530 BCE. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who managed to add to the empire by conquering Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica during his short rule.

Cyrus the Great respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. It is said that in universal history, the role of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus lies in its very successful model for centralized administration and establishing a government working to the advantage and profit of its subjects. In fact, the administration of the empire through satraps and the vital principle of forming a government at Pasargadae were the works of Cyrus. What is sometimes referred to as the Edict of Restoration (actually two edicts) described in the Bible as being made by Cyrus the Great left a lasting legacy on Judaism, where, because of his policies in Babylonia, he is referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Messiah (lit. “anointed one”) (Isaiah 45:1), and is the only Gentile to be so called.

Cyrus the Great is recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy, as well as his influence on both Eastern and Western civilizations. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. Cyrus and, indeed, the Achaemenid influence in the ancient world also extended as far as Athens, where many Athenians adopted aspects of the Achaemenid Persian culture as their own, in a reciprocal cultural exchange.


In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, identified Cyrus’ famous proclamation inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder as the oldest known declaration of human rights, and the Cylinder has since been popularized as such. This view has been criticized by some historians as a misunderstanding of the Cylinder’s generic nature as a traditional statement that ancient Near Eastern monarchs made at the beginning of their reigns. There is nothing especially original about the Cylinder’s contents, and the Shah’s touting of it as Iran’s first human rights declaration was more likely a calculated political move to trumpet his own status, and thus hide the realities of his own repressive rule under a thin veil of historical continuity and legitimacy. In truth, Cyrus did, indeed, allow local cultures to retain their traditional identities, hence his willingness to return the Jews to Jerusalem. People not subject to tyrannical, enforced hegemony and assimilation, as the Jews were in Babylon, are less likely to rebel. If you let them get on with their own business – taxing them heavily – you survive as a ruler longer. But make no mistake, the “laws of the Medes and Persians” were legendary for their strictness. Rebel and you pay in blood.


Here’s an old Persian recipe for duck in pomegranate and walnut sauce. Duck is traditional, but you can use just about any meat or meatballs. Chicken works fine. There’s no knowing the exact age of the dish given that recipes from Cyrus’ era do not exist. But it is acknowledged to be an old dish, still very popular. You can probably buy pomegranate molasses online, but it’s easy enough to make. I give a recipe below the main recipe. Serve the duck with Persian rice and flat bread.


Duck Fesenjān


1 duck cut in 8 pieces (bone in)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp duck fat
3 tbsp olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup pomegranate molasses
¼ cup honey
3 cups walnut halves


Season the duck all over with salt and pepper.

Heat the duck fat in a heavy skillet over high heat. Sauté the duck pieces in batches until browned on all sides. Reserve the browned pieces and pour the remaining fat into a Dutch oven.

Pour a little chicken stock into the skillet and bring to a boil while scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat.

Heat the duck fat plus olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté the onion in the oil and fat until golden. Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and nutmeg and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Pour the chicken broth, pomegranate molasses, and honey, into the onions. Bring to a simmer.

Grind the walnuts to a fine powder in a food processor.

Sauté the walnut powder in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir the walnuts into the broth mixture. Add the browned duck and add more chicken broth if needed to cover. Reduce the heat and simmer until the duck is tender (up to 3 hours).

Transfer the duck to a serving dish and keep warm.

Bring the broth mixture to a boil and cook until reduced to a thick sauce consistency. Ladle the sauce over the duck.

Pomegranate Molasses

Place 4 cups of pomegranate juice, ½ cup of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice in a 4-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the mixture has reduced to 1 cup ( approximately 70 minutes). It should be the consistency of thick syrup. Remove from the heat and allow to cool in the saucepan for 30 minutes. Transfer to a glass jar and allow to cool completely before covering and storing in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

May 302015


On this date in 1431 Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc), nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” (French: La Pucelle d’Orléans), was burnt at the stake in Rouen in Normandy by an English dominated tribunal during the Hundred Years’ War. She is still celebrated as a heroine of France and is a Roman Catholic saint. She was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle, a peasant family, at Domrémy in north-east France. Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. Upon Joan’s personal petition, the uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained immediate prominence throughout the army after the siege was lifted in only nine days. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

On 23 May 1430, she was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundian faction which was allied with the English. She was later handed over to the English, and then put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on a variety of charges. After Cauchon declared her guilty, following a ludicrously unfair trial, she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431, dying at about nineteen years of age.

Twenty-five years after her execution, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, debunked the charges against her, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. She is one of the nine secondary patron saints of France, along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis, St. Michael, St. Remi, St. Petronilla, St. Radegund and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Joan has been a popular figure in literature, painting, sculpture, and other cultural works since the time of her death, and many famous writers, filmmakers, and composers have created works about her. I imagine that most people know the general outline of her short life, so I’d like to focus on her last days which involve some things that are not necessarily common knowledge.


Joan’s presence during sieges had miraculously encouraged the troops, and, despite her complete lack of military training, her advice to the military leaders led to dramatic successes. In a short time she went from being ridiculed and ignored to a national heroine. There was certainly a general sense among the French leadership, up to and including the king, that the French army couldn’t do any worse, so why not follow Joan’s advice? She quickly showed that nothing succeeds like success. Joan traveled to Compiègne in May 1430 to help defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. A skirmish on 23 May, when her force attempted to attack the Burgundians’ camp at Margny, led to her capture. When the troops began to withdraw toward the nearby fortifications of Compiègne after the advance of an additional force of 6,000 Burgundians, Joan stayed with the rear guard. Burgundian troops surrounded the rear guard, and she was pulled off her horse by an archer. She agreed to surrender to a pro-Burgundian nobleman named Lionel of Wandomme, a member of Jean de Luxembourg’s unit.


Joan was imprisoned by the Burgundians at Beaurevoir Castle. She attempted several escapes, on one occasion jumping from her 70-foot (21 m) tower, landing on the soft earth of a dry moat, after which she was moved to the Burgundian town of Arras. The English negotiated with their Burgundian allies to transfer her to their custody, with Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, an English partisan, assuming a prominent role in these negotiations and her later trial. The final agreement called for the English to pay the sum of 10,000 livres tournois to obtain her from Jean de Luxembourg.


The English then moved Joan to the city of Rouen, which served as their main headquarters in France. Historian Pierre Champion notes that the Armagnacs attempted to rescue her several times by launching military campaigns toward Rouen while she was held there. One campaign occurred during the winter of 1430-1431, another in March 1431, and one in late May shortly before her execution. These attempts were beaten back. Champion also quotes 15th century sources which say that Charles VII threatened to “exact vengeance” upon Burgundian troops whom his forces had captured and upon “the English and women of England” in retaliation for their treatment of Joan.


Joan’s trial for heresy was politically motivated. The tribunal was composed entirely of pro-English and Burgundian clerics, and overseen by English commanders including the Duke of Bedford and Earl of Warwick. Legal proceedings commenced on 9 January 1431 at Rouen. The procedure was illegal on a number of points, which would later provoke scathing criticism of the tribunal by the chief inquisitor who investigated the trial after the war. To summarize some major problems: Under ecclesiastical law, Bishop Cauchon lacked jurisdiction over the case. Cauchon owed his appointment to his partisan support of the English government which financed the trial. The low standard of evidence used in the trial also violated inquisitorial rules. Clerical notary Nicolas Bailly, who was commissioned to collect testimony against Joan, could find no adverse evidence. Without such evidence the court lacked grounds to initiate a trial. Opening a trial anyway, the court also violated ecclesiastical law by denying her the right to a legal adviser. Worse, stacking the tribunal entirely with pro-English clergy violated the medieval Church’s requirement that heresy trials needed to be judged by an impartial or balanced group of clerics. Upon the opening of the first public examination Joan complained that those present were all partisans against her and asked for “ecclesiastics of the French side” to be invited in order to provide balance. This request was denied.


The Vice-Inquisitor of Northern France (Jean Lemaitre) objected to the trial at its outset, and several eyewitnesses later said he was forced to cooperate after the English threatened his life. Some of the other clergy at the trial were also threatened when they refused to cooperate, including a Dominican friar named Isambart de la Pierre. These threats, and the domination of the trial by a secular government, were obvious violations of the Church’s rules and undermined the right of the Church to conduct heresy trials without secular interference.


The trial record contains statements from Joan which the eyewitnesses later said astonished the court, since she was an illiterate peasant and yet was able to evade the theological pitfalls which the tribunal set up to entrap her. The transcript’s most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety. “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.'” The question is a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have been charged with heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Notary Boisguillaume later testified that at the moment the court heard this reply, “Those who were interrogating her were stupefied.”

Several court functionaries later testified that important portions of the transcript were altered in her disfavor. Under Inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of female guards (i.e., nuns). Instead, the English kept her in a secular prison guarded by their own soldiers. Bishop Cauchon denied Joan’s appeals to the Council of Basel and the Pope, which should have stopped his proceeding.


The twelve articles of accusation which summarize the court’s finding contradict the already doctored court record. Joan was illiterate but signed an abjuration (acceptance of the court’s findings) she did not understand under threat of immediate execution. The court substituted a different abjuration in the official record. The critical problem for the court was that they had no hard evidence of heresy on Joan’s part and, besides, heresy was a capital crime only for a repeat offense. So a repeat offense of “cross-dressing” was now charged against her. Even this charge was problematic because Joan agreed to wear feminine clothing when she abjured.

According to the later descriptions of some of the tribunal members, she had previously been wearing male (i.e. military) clothing in prison because it gave her the ability to fasten her hosen, boots and tunic together into one piece, which deterred rape by making it difficult to pull her hosen off. A woman’s dress offered no such protection. A few days after adopting a dress, she told a tribunal member that “a great English lord had entered her prison and tried to take her by force. [i.e. rape her]” She resumed male clothes either as a defense against molestation or, in the testimony of Jean Massieu, because her dress had been taken by the guards and she was left with nothing else to wear.


Her resumption of male military clothing was labeled a relapse into heresy for cross-dressing, although this would later be disputed by the inquisitor who presided over the appeals court which examined the case after the war. Medieval Catholic doctrine held that cross-dressing should be evaluated based on context, as stated in the “Summa Theologica” by St. Thomas Aquinas, which says that necessity would be a permissible reason for cross-dressing. This would include the use of clothing as protection against rape if the clothing would offer protection. In terms of doctrine, she had been justified in disguising herself as a pageboy during her journey through enemy territory and she was justified in wearing armor during battle and protective clothing in camp and then in prison. The Chronique de la Pucelle states that it deterred molestation while she was camped in the field. When her soldier’s clothing wasn’t needed while on campaign, she was said to have gone back to wearing a dress. Clergy who later testified at the posthumous appellate trial affirmed that she continued to wear male clothing in prison to deter molestation and rape.

She referred the court to the Poitiers inquiry when questioned on the matter. The Poitiers record no longer survives but circumstances indicate the Poitiers clerics had approved her practice. She also kept her hair cut short through her military campaigns and while in prison. Her supporters, such as the theologian Jean Gerson, defended her hairstyle for practical reasons, as did Inquisitor Brehal later during the appellate trial. Nonetheless, at the trial in 1431 she was condemned and sentenced to die. I wonder how many people in the LGBT community know that the accusation that stuck and led to her execution was cross dressing?


Eyewitnesses described the scene of the execution by burning on 30 May 1431. Tied to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy, Fr Martin Ladvenu and Fr Isambart de la Pierre, to hold a crucifix before her. An English soldier also constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she died, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics. They cast her remains into the Seine River. The executioner, Geoffroy Thérage, later stated that he “…greatly feared to be damned.”

The Hundred Years’ War continued for twenty-two years after her death. Charles VII succeeded in retaining legitimacy as the king of France in spite of a rival coronation held for Henry VI at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, on 16 December 1431, the boy’s tenth birthday. Before England could rebuild its military leadership and force of longbowmen, lost in 1429, the country lost its alliance with Burgundy at the Treaty of Arras in 1435. The Duke of Bedford died the same year and Henry VI became the youngest king of England to rule without a regent: his weak leadership was probably the most important factor in ending the conflict. Kelly DeVries argues that Joan of Arc’s aggressive use of artillery and frontal assaults influenced French tactics for the rest of the war.

In 1452, during the posthumous investigation into her execution, the Church declared that a religious play in her honor at Orléans would allow attendees to gain an indulgence (remission of temporal punishment for sin) by making a pilgrimage to the event. A posthumous retrial opened after the war ended. Pope Callixtus III authorized this proceeding, also known as the “nullification trial”, at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal and Joan’s mother Isabelle Romée. The aim of the trial was to investigate whether the trial of condemnation and its verdict had been handled justly and according to canon law. Investigations started with an inquest by Guillaume Bouillé, a theologian and former rector of the University of Paris (Sorbonne). Bréhal conducted an investigation in 1452. A formal appeal followed in November 1455. The appellate process involved clergy from throughout Europe and observed standard court procedure. A panel of theologians analyzed testimony from 115 witnesses. Bréhal drew up his final summary in June 1456, which describes Joan as a martyr and implicated the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. The technical reason for her execution had been a Biblical clothing law. The nullification trial reversed the conviction in part because the condemnation proceeding had failed to consider the doctrinal exceptions to that stricture. The appellate court declared her innocent on 7 July 1456.


These days Rouen, one of my favorite spots in the world, is famous for its duck dishes. It is said that if you visit Normandy you should have duck in Rouen, tripe in Caen, and omelet in Mont St Michel. I’ve done the first two, but the third must wait. The specialty of Rouen duck derives from the 19th century and not Joan’s era, so it is not strictly appropriate to honor her. As a compromise I suggest roasting a duck and serving it with a 15th-century “black” sauce used in France (and England) for capons. A 14th century English recipe is as follows:

Sawse noyre for capouns yrosted. Take the lyuer of capons and roost it wel. Take anyse and greynes de parys, gynger, canel, & a lytull crust of brede, and grinde it smale, and grynde it vp with verious and with grece of capouns. Boyle it and serue it forth.

This reminds me very much of a sauce I make for roast turkey by poaching the giblets in stock with seasonal spices, adding the roast liver, and then processing, followed by thickening and reduction with a light roux. In this recipe the spices are anise, ginger, cinnamon, and grains of paradise, with verjuice acting as salt (and a sour note), and breadcrumbs being the thickening agent. Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) are a 15th century black pepper substitute – warm and peppery with citrus notes. It’s available online or you can substitute black pepper. With a kitchen I could recreate this recipe in a heartbeat.

The 15th century French recipe:

Ung pignagoscé sur chapons: bien cuis en bon boullon, decopez par lopins, puis suffris en beau sain de lard; prenez les foyez de vos chapons et les broyez tresbien, puis prenez pain harlé, tempré en bon vergus, tout passé parmy l’estamine, gingembre, clou, graine, deffait de vin rouge et de vin aigre; faictez tout boullir ensamble; et du persin effueillié; jettez par dessus vostre grain chaudement.

My Medieval French is not particularly competent, but here is my free translation following what I take to be the spirit rather than the literal meaning of the text (and without sufficient research). Corrections welcomed. I’m not sure what a pignagoscé is but it’s not too important – a poached and sauced dish.

A Pignagoscé of Capons.

Poach the capons in a rich stock until well cooked. Hack them in pieces and sauté in fine rendered lard. Grind up the livers of the capons. Soak toast in verjuice and strain through a sieve. Add ginger, cloves, grains of paradise, red wine, and vinegar and boil it all together with parsley. Pour the sauce over the meat.

Now you have all the info I have. Go to it !! I ALWAYS roast poultry at very high heat emulating historical cooking methods. This renders the fat quickly, crisps the skin, and keeps the meat juicy and tender.

©Roast Duck with Black Sauce


1 duck with giblets
2 or 3 duck livers
¼ tsp. anise seed
¼ tsp. grains of paradise, ground (or black pepper)
¼ tsp. ginger
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp fresh parsley finely chopped
1 tbsp toasted bread crumbs
¼ cup red wine and white vinegar mixed
1 cup rich chicken stock
2 tbsp duck fat


Preheat the oven to 500°F.

Dry the duck skin thoroughly with paper towels and leave it out to air dry for an hour or so. Prick the skin very well with a fork. Place it on a baking tray with a rack in it so that the duck does not rest on the bottom.

Roast the duck for about 40 minutes, pricking the skin every 10 minutes or so with the livers in the cavity. Pricking helps release the fat and provides a self basting. The skin will become a beautiful mottled golden-brown.

Meanwhile poach the giblets (and neck) in the stock with the wine/vinegar mix, parsley, and spices.

When the duck is about ready to serve, melt the duck fat over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet and then add the breadcrumbs. Sauté briefly until a paste forms. Strain the stock into a food processor and add the roasted livers. Pulse until the livers are ground. Add to the breadcrumb paste slowly over low heat, whisking constantly. Heat until the sauce thickens.

Remove the duck from the oven and take off the skin. Cut into bite sized pieces. Serve separately on a heated plate. Cut the duck into 8 pieces: 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, and 4 breasts. Arrange on a platter and pour over the sauce. Serve with boiled new potatoes and crusty bread.

Serves 4