Sep 152017
 

Today is Free Money Day, an annual, global event held since 2011 as a social experiment and to promote sharing and alternative economic ideas, advocated by the Post Growth Institute (PGI).  You can find details about PGI here:

http://postgrowth.org/

Free Money Day is held annually on September 15, the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers’ 2008 filing for bankruptcy. Participants offer their own money to passing strangers at public places, two coins or notes at a time. Recipients are asked to pass on one of the notes or coins to someone else. 68 events were held in 2011. On one past Free Money Day, according to the official website, 138 Free Money Day events were held in 24 countries. The money is given without obligation; it is hoped that the event and the transactions will stimulate conversations about the role of money in society, increase awareness about debt and make people think about their own relationship with money.

This is from the FREE MONEY DAY facebook page:

Our economy can work for everyone!

How? The same way every healthy system works, through good circulation. For the body, it’s blood; for the environment, it’s oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen; for our economy, it’s money.

If your heart stops pumping blood through every part of the body, tissue dies. If vital elements don’t circulate appropriately throughout the environment, our ecosystem collapses. When money accumulates at the top, instead of circulating freely through every economic level, a sick economy is inevitable.

Free Money Day is an opportunity to encourage money to circulate more freely through our economy. Whether you leave a little money with a note on a park bench, or hand money to complete strangers, know that by sharing money more freely you are helping to create a more caring, sharing economy.

I can’t find a reference to it now, but I remember my father telling me a story about a man in the 19th century standing on London Bridge offering free money to strangers (guinea coins, I think), and no one would take them. They assumed they were fake, or there was some kind of catch. Sheer, unadulterated altruism with money just raises suspicion it seems. Getting people to think about their relationship to money is the whole point of the day, and my own experiments over the years have been enlightening to me.  Money is such a fraught subject for so many people.  For some time when I was a university professor I would teach once in a while about the emotions and beliefs surrounding money, and, on occasion, to illustrate a point I would offer a dollar bill to a student – free. It’s hardly a king’s ransom, but you’d be surprised at how few people wanted to take the money.

I’m not rich by any means.  In fact I’ve had times in my life when I have had zero in the bank and had to scrounge a meal.  Once as a young professor I had to collect empty cans on my campus and get the deposit from them just to pay the toll to cross the bridge to drive home.  Nowadays I have enough to live on and not much more, and that’s fine.  If I have a little extra and someone needs help with money, I give it to them. I’ve gathered over the years that that attitude makes me a bit of a weirdo.  So be it. Money is not important to me as long as I have enough to live on. I’m not interested in accumulating wealth.  As far as I can tell, accumulating wealth corrupts people, or, at least, distorts their perspective on life.

One of the most profoundly influential ideas that I got from Marx is the notion of “exchange value” versus “use value.” In monetary terms (exchange value), a dinner that costs $20 and a shirt that costs $20 are equivalent, but if you are hungry a shirt is not much use to you. In that sense, money is a false common denominator, and if you see items in terms of their monetary value instead of their use value you are dehumanizing yourself (as well as those items) by reducing them to a scale that is ultimately meaningless – or, more precisely, has the meaning you bestow upon it because it has no intrinsic meaning, or value. Money has no use value: you can’t wear it or eat it; you can only exchange it for things you can wear or eat. Yet money gets invested with immense power despite its lack of intrinsic worth.

I could not participate properly in Free Money Day today because I live in Myanmar and don’t speak Burmese (even a little).  Consequently, it would have been impossible for me to go up to a stranger, hand him two notes (there are no coins in Myanmar) and explain what I was doing. Instead I chose a teacher at my school and gave her two 5,000 kyat notes (about $4 dollars each) and explained to her about Free Money Day: she could keep one of them and had to give the other one away. Her first response was “Really ?????” and wouldn’t take the money. I had to offer it three times before she would take. Finally, she gave in.  Then periodically throughout the day I added some comments and a few questions.  I told her that she had to give away one note today (my invention to push the issue).  I got “Really ?????” again.

After a while she told me that she was thinking carefully about it, but had made no decisions. The thing is that this is a very strange act for Myanmar. Myanmar is a poor country where most people work long hours for little money. Giving away hard-earned money for no reason is not only unheard of but also completely illogical. Eventually she asked me, “Why did you pick me?” I replied, “Because I like you?” Again I got “Really ?????” Telling people your true feelings is as unheard of in Myanmar as giving away free money: if not more so.

My wife related a story about money her therapist told her that leads to our recipe for the day.  Apparently he was in therapy as a young man, and one day he was really down in the dumps about a lot of things but lack of money topped the list, and at the time he was hungry with no money for a meal. His therapist took him out on the streets and panhandled a little money. Then he went to a convenience store, bought two cups of instant noodles, used the hot water at the store to heat them, then sat on the street with my wife’s therapist, and they ate them.  His simple comment was, “You see, you’ll always have enough if you have faith and a little imagination.”

Your dish of the day, therefore, is a cup of instant noodles. They’re not gourmet food they fill a chink and they teach an important lesson about the value of money and the value of life.

Aug 232017
 

Today is the birthday (1852) of the economic historian Arnold Toynbee – not to be confused with his nephew (also Arnold Toynbee) who is renowned for his monumental study of the philosophy and principles of history at large. The Arnold Toynbee I celebrate today is much less well known, but I will try to change that if I can.  This Arnold Toynbee was noted for his nuanced study of capitalism and political economy, and for his social commitment and desire to improve the living conditions of the mostly urban working classes during the Industrial Revolution in England. The main reason I like his work as a social scientist is that he was deeply opposed to finding general laws of economics in history, and championed the need to treat each time and place as economically and historically unique. Thus, for example, Free Trade cannot be seen as an overall good or an overall evil: sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Particular local circumstances determine outcomes, not grand theories or models.  I like that approach.

Toynbee was born in London, the son of the physician Joseph Toynbee, a pioneering otolaryngologist. He attended public schools in Blackheath and Woolwich, and in 1873 he began to study political economy at Oxford University, first at Pembroke College (my college), and then from 1875 at Balliol College, where he went on to teach after he took his degree in 1878. His lectures on the history of the Industrial Revolution in 18th and 19th century Britain proved widely influential. Toynbee did not coin, but he did effectively popularize, the term “Industrial Revolution” in the Anglophone world. In Germany and elsewhere it had been brought into circulation earlier by Friedrich Engels referring to industrial changes in Britain.

Toynbee died in 1883, at age 30. His health had rapidly deteriorated, with some speculation at the time that this was due to exhaustion caused by excessive work. Frederick Rogers suggests that the publication of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty may be said to have brought about Toynbee’s death:

As [Toynbee] saw the book, it was full of economic heresies, and he resolved to answer them. Of weak physique, but full of a passionate spiritual enthusiasm, he gave two lectures at St. Andrew’s Hall, Oxford Street, against the book and the effort ended his career. He died for truth as he knew it, and those who knew him felt that his death was a national loss…

I think we can forgive Rogers his overt Romanticism.

According to Toynbee, applying the historical method in economics would reveal how supposedly universal economic laws were, in fact, relativistic. For example, he argued that, despite commonly held beliefs, free trade was not generally advantageous in itself, but only under certain circumstances, which should not be considered absolute. Toynbee considered few laws universally true, such as the law of diminishing returns. Therefore, there were no universal rules as to how strongly the state should interfere in the marketplace; all depended on the situation and varying degrees of regulation could be appropriate.

Another idea Toynbee dismissed was that free competition was universally beneficial to economic and societal progress, especially as reflected in its apotheosis in Social Darwinism, which promoted laissez-faire capitalism. Toynbee did not equate “a struggle for mere existence and a struggle for a particular kind of existence”. From the very beginning of history, he argued, all human cultures were essentially designed to “interfere with this brute struggle. We intend to modify the violence of the fight, and to prevent the weak being trampled under foot.” Although economic competition does have its advantages, being the driving force behind technical progress, these were “gained at the expense of an enormous waste of human life and labour, which might be avoided by regulation”. Toynbee suggested a differentiation between competition in production on the one hand, and competition in the distribution of goods on the other:

… the struggle of men to outvie one another in production is beneficial to the community; their struggle over the division of the joint produce is not. The stronger side will dictate its own terms; and as a matter of fact, in the early days of competition, the capitalists used all their power to oppress the labourers, and drove down wages to starvation point. This kind of competition has to be checked; there is no historical instance of its having lasted long without being modified either by combination or legislation, or both. In England both remedies are in operation, the former through Trades Unions, the latter through factory legislation.

In itself, a market based on competition was neither good nor bad, but like “a stream whose strength and direction have to be observed, that embankments may be thrown up within which it may do its work harmlessly and beneficially”. However, in the early phase of industrial capitalism “it came to be believed in as a gospel, … from which it was regarded as little long of immoral to depart”.

For Toynbee, early industrial capitalism and the situation of the working class in it was not just a subject of disinterested academic studies; he was actively involved in improving the living conditions of the worker. He read for workers in large industrial centers and encouraged the creation of trade unions and co-operatives. A focal point of his commitment was the slum of Whitechapel, in East London, where he helped to establish public libraries for the working-class population. Toynbee also encouraged his students to offer free courses for working-class audiences in their own neighborhoods.

Inspired by his ideas, Samuel Augustus Barnett and Henrietta Barnett founded the first university settlement in 1884, shortly after Toynbee’s death. It was located on Commercial Street, Whitechapel and named Toynbee Hall in his honor. It was a center for social reform and remains active today. The concept was to bring upper- and middle-class students into lower-class neighborhoods, not only to provide education and social aid, but to actually live and work together with their residents. This soon inspired a worldwide movement of university settlements. The idea was to help members of the future elite understand the problems of British society; this was especially important at a time when class divisions were much stronger, social mobility was minimal, and the living conditions of the poor were completely unknown to many members of the upper class. Toynbee Hall attracted many students, especially from Oxford’s Wadham and Balliol College.

According to Toynbee, “the essence of the Industrial Revolution” was “the substitution of competition for the medieval regulations which had previously controlled the production and distribution of wealth”. Among its components were an “agrarian revolution” that produced “the alienation between farmer and labourer” and in the manufacturing world, the appearance of a “new class of great capitalist employers”. “The old relations between masters and men disappeared, and a ‘cash nexus’ was substituted for the human tie.” Summing up his interpretation, Toynbee wrote, “the Wealth of Nations and the steam-engine…destroyed the old world and built a new one.” For Toynbee, this coupling seemed self-evident. Steam-powered factories, the Wealth of Nations, competition, the cash-nexus and the rise of pauperism formed part of a single phenomenon.

In response to this bleak scenario, Toynbee proposed a test for when the state should become involved in the regulation of an economic or social sphere of society to even the balance between industry and labour. He proposed the “Radical Creed”, which,

as I understand it, is this: We have not abandoned our old belief in liberty, justice, and Self-help, but we say that under certain conditions the people cannot help themselves, and that then they should be helped by the State representing directly the whole people. In giving this State help, we make three conditions: first, the matter must be one of primary social importance; next, it must be proved to be practicable; thirdly, the State interference must not diminish self-reliance. Even if the chance should arise of removing a great social evil, nothing must be done to weaken those habits of individual self-reliance and voluntary association which have built up the greatness of the English people.

Words of a great man. Here Toynbee puts his finger on a problem that has bedeviled Western democracies, especially the United States, since the 19th century. How do you balance the need for collective action to promote social welfare without interfering with the rights and creativity of the individual? I’m not going to embark on an answer to a question as complex as that in a few paragraphs.  I’ll talk about food instead.

Isabella Beeton has these words to say about being economical in the industrial age as a component of her recipe for roast haunch of mutton:

HOW TO BUY MEAT ECONOMICALLY.—If the housekeeper is not very particular as to the precise joints to cook for dinner, there is oftentimes an opportunity for her to save as much money in her purchases of meat as will pay for the bread to eat with it. It often occurs, for instance, that the butcher may have a superfluity of certain joints, and these he would be glad to get rid of at a reduction of sometimes as much as 1d. or 1-1/2d. per lb., and thus, in a joint of 8 or 9 lbs., will be saved enough to buy 2 quartern loaves. It frequently happens with many butchers, that, in consequence of a demand for legs and loins of mutton, they have only shoulders left, and these they will be glad to sell at a reduction.

The recipe itself is rather basic I’m afraid:

ROAST HAUNCH OF MUTTON.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—Haunch of mutton, a little salt, flour.

Mode.—Let this joint hang as long as possible without becoming tainted, and while hanging dust flour over it, which keeps off the flies, and prevents the air from getting to it. If not well hung, the joint, when it comes to table, will neither do credit to the butcher or the cook, as it will not be tender. Wash the outside well, lest it should have a bad flavour from keeping; then flour it and put it down to a nice brisk fire, at some distance, so that it may gradually warm through. Keep continually basting, and about 1/2 hour before it is served, draw it nearer to the fire to get nicely brown. Sprinkle a little fine salt over the meat, pour off the dripping, add a little boiling water slightly salted, and strain this over the joint. Place a paper ruche on the bone, and send red-currant jelly and gravy in a tureen to table with it.

Time.—About 4 hours.

Average cost, 10d. per lb.

Sufficient for 8 to 10 persons.

Jun 052017
 

Another major coincidence day.  Today is the birthday of two monumentally influential economists: Adam Smith (1723 OS) and John Maynard Keynes (1883). If I set my mind to it I would be writing for days about their respective theories, comparing them, and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not going to, however. Even though it may look otherwise, this is, first and foremost a RECIPE blog and I want to stay that course even though I am patently easily distracted by history.  I’ll paint in very broad strokes before I get to my recipe and you can delve the mysteries of economics on your own if you are interested. I make no apologies for being overly simplistic.  It is a sad fact that most modern-day politicians are also overly simplistic when it comes to economics. I claim the right to be so because I am not making policy decisions that affect millions. Politicians ought to be more educated.

Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations, was first published in 1776, but went through many major revisions. Wealth of Nations presents considers such basic issues as what builds a nations’ wealth, the division of labor, productivity, and free markets. It is today a foundational work in classical economics. Smith’s thought is severely limited by the fact that he was writing at the extreme beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and so takes no account of the impact on macroeconomics of the factory system, mass industrial production and consumption, nor mass media and advertising.

Smith is sometimes best remembered for his concept of the “invisible hand” (which he called AN invisible hand), even though he used the term only three times in his voluminous writing. The idea is implicit throughout, however. Smith argued that when left with substantial freedom, economic systems are able to regulate themselves. The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is limited by externalities, monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others.

Smith’s most basic hypothesis is that rational self interest ultimately leads to an economy in which all benefit. Take a hypothetical man blessed with a ton of money.  What should he do with it? Assuming he is self interested he will want to make a profit. He has a choice between hiring hundreds of (unproductive) servants or hundreds of (productive) workers.  For comfort he might hire some servants but they produce zero profit for him. He is much better off hiring as many productive workers as he can.  They have jobs, he makes a profit – seemingly win-win.  Without regulation the system achieves a balance via the forces of supply and demand. Of course it’s not as simple as that, nor did Smith suggest it was.  But that’s the core. It’s also the basis of Reaganomics or “trickle down” economics: make the rich richer by leaving them unfettered by taxation and whatnot and their wealth will naturally filter down to the benefit of everybody. I think we all see the inherent flaws in that mode of thinking.

Keynes produced his most influential work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money during the Great Depression in 1936, challenging the ideas of the neoclassical economics of the time that held that free markets would, in the short to medium term, automatically provide full employment, as long as workers were flexible in their wage demands. He instead argued that aggregate demand determined the overall level of economic activity and that inadequate aggregate demand could lead to prolonged periods of high unemployment. Keynes advocated the use of fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and depressions. Classical economic theory had natural swings from boom to bust built in, and Keynesian models sought to flatten out these curves in the system through enlightened regulation.

From the end of the Great Depression to the mid-1970s, Keynes provided the main inspiration for economic policy makers in Europe, the US, and much of the rest of the world. While economists and policy makers had become increasingly won over to Keynes’s way of thinking in the mid and late 1930s, it was only after the outbreak of World War II that governments started to borrow money for spending on a scale sufficient to eliminate unemployment. According to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (then a US government official charged with controlling inflation), in the rebound of the economy from wartime spending, “one could not have had a better demonstration of the Keynesian ideas.”

The “Keynesian Revolution” was associated with the rise of modern liberalism in the West during the post-war period. Keynesian ideas became so popular that some scholars point to Keynes as representing the ideals of modern liberalism, as Adam Smith represented the ideals of classical liberalism. After the war, Winston Churchill attempted to check the rise of Keynesian policy-making in the United Kingdom and used rhetoric critical of the mixed economy in his 1945 election campaign. Despite his popularity as a war hero, Churchill suffered a landslide defeat to Clement Attlee whose government’s economic policy continued to be influenced by Keynes’s ideas.

As a not inconsequential side note Keynes thought that the pursuit of wealth for its own sake was a pathological condition, and that the proper aim of work was to provide leisure. He wanted shorter working hours and longer holidays for all. Keynes was interested in literature in general and drama in particular and supported the Cambridge Arts Theatre financially, which allowed the institution, at least for a while, to become a major British stage outside London.

Keynes’s personal interest in classical opera and dance led him to support the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Ballet Company at Sadler’s Wells. During the war, as a member of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), Keynes helped secure government funds to maintain both companies while their venues were shut. Following the war, Keynes was instrumental in establishing the Arts Council of Great Britain and was its founding chairman in 1946. Unsurprisingly, from the start the two organizations that received the largest grants from the new body were the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells.

Not only do Smith’s and Keynes’s ideas clash in government policies these days – head on – a host of other economic models vie for ascendancy. In the end, however, the unregulated free market versus enlightened regulation lie at the heart of the matter for the vast majority of people, including policy makers (none of whom appear to think very deeply about these matters).

As an anthropologist I can’t help but notice that the role of culture is almost entirely absent from the theories of both men. Terms such as rational self interest, supply and demand, profit motive etc. are not culture-free terms. Max Weber, for example, pointed out that what counts as self interest is influenced by cultural factors. He noted that in modern economies higher wages could stimulate higher productivity whereas in what he called “traditional economies” the opposite is the case.  The issue comes down to whether a culture works on the assumption that “more is better” or “enough is enough.” Weber argues that in modern economies the majority will always work more because the people want more, whereas in traditional economies people have a sense of when they have enough for their needs, and so will work only sufficient hours to get what they need. If you pay people higher wages in a traditional culture they will work less.  It comes down to whether a culture is driven by need or desire. Their economies will be very different.  Of course, for the West desire trumps need almost all the time. Gracias a dios, I escaped the endless desire for more and more a long time ago.  Sure a Ferrari will get me from A to B very efficiently and I will look good to others in the process. But a Fiat will get me from A to B also; so will a bus or a bicycle. Nowadays you’ll usually find me on a bus when I need to travel – taking photos or reading a book.

The economics of food shopping is by no means a trivial matter.  I am always acutely aware of the price of various items. It’s not that I cannot afford to pay a lot for certain things, but generally I am not going to – except on special occasions. This is the main reason that I cook the way locals cook for the most part. This is not a rigid rule of course.  I mostly cooked using Argentine staples when I lived in Buenos Aires, but I did make the occasional trek to barrio Chino to stock up on Asian foods because Argentine cooking is dreadfully bland. For me food shopping requires balancing three variables: 1. What I can afford (or what I am prepared to pay).  2.  What I need for a healthy diet. 3. What I am in the mood for. On good days I can juggle all three nicely.

Right now I’m preparing to leave Italy so another variable has entered the picture – part of the supply side. I have to use up a kitchen full of non-perishable foods such as rice, beans, lentils, pasta etc. or get rid of them.  The canny wee Scot in me will not countenance throwing them out or giving them away, so  my daily recipes feature a lot of rice and beans.  But I don’t want to be dreary.  I go to the market almost daily and hunt for special offers – especially overstocks of perishables that have reached their sell-by date. Supply and demand work to my benefit most days. This does mean that I cannot eat what I want, when I want, without paying the price.  I live with that because I can always make something tasty with what I have.

I could give you a recipe for my Stick Everything in a Pot Soup recipe I suppose, but the name pretty much says it all. The thing is that “everything” does not literally mean “everything.” It does mean putting things together that you do not normally think of as going together – for the sake of using them up. You can make an awful mess if you are not careful.  Timing is paramount (as it is with markets). Meat, onions, and other seasonings go in first.  Dried beans and pulses also need a lot of time to cook. Generally I don’t find that rice and pasta work well together in a soup. You can use one or the other, but their cooking times need to be carefully gauged so that they do not overcook. Same for vegetables.  Usually I plan about 2 hours to cook this kind of soup and carefully plan (on paper) when I will add each ingredient so that I end up with a soup in which every ingredient is perfectly cooked, and not overcooked.

 

May 272013
 

Ibn Khaldoun

Today is the birthday (1332) of Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (بو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي) commonly known as Ibn Khaldoun, one of the greatest thinkers in the fields of history, economics, sociology, and anthropology of all times, and is now rightly considered by many experts in those fields to be their great-great grandfather.  Yet most of his work remained unknown in the West for centuries until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century when many of his fundamental ideas were reinvented by scholars.  Even now in the social sciences his name is hardly a byword.  I first learned about him in graduate school when I took a class on the pre-modern history of anthropology.  Many of his ground breaking theories are current to this day.

Ibn Khaldoun (or Ibn Khaldūn) was an Arab Muslim born in Tunis into an upper-class Andalusian family of Arab descent, the Banu Khaldūn. His family, which held many high offices in Andalusia, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to Reconquista forces around the middle of the 13th century. After the fall of Tunis to the sultan of Constantinople in 1352, he relocated to Fez (Morocco) where he took up the position of writer of royal proclamations for the sultan, Abu Inan Fares I.  However, he got himself in hot water fairly soon for scheming against the sultan and landed in prison for 22 months. He was released on the sultan’s death but had mixed fortunes subsequently.  He decided to move to Granada, capital of the province of Granada in Andalusia, where he expected to be well received because in his time at Fez he had assisted the sultan of Granada, Muhammad V, regain power following his exile. There he came into conflict with the sultan’s vizier and so relocated to North Africa once again where he bounced around, because of his seemingly insatiable desire to cause trouble, finally ending up in Egypt, where he died in 1406. During his time in North Africa and Egypt he mostly devoted himself to writing and some teaching.  These were the years that produced his greatest works.

His best known book is the Muqaddimah, commonly called the Prolegomena in English because it is the introductory volume in his proposed grand history of the world.  In it he lays out his basic methods and theories to be applied in the body of the work.  He starts out with a critique of previous methods in history pointing out that they are often unreliable because of 7 critical errors in method, such as writing with the purpose of currying favor with a ruler, failure to examine the reliability of sources, and bias towards a particular creed or cultural norm (what we now call ethnocentrism). My favorite of them all, the cornerstone of all cultural anthropology, is the error of  failing to place events in their proper historical and cultural contexts and, hence, failing to interpret their true meaning — a principle I live by in my own writing.

You would be amazed at the breadth of his theorizing in diverse fields, and at how well his work continues to accord with contemporary theory. In economics he expounded on markets, laws of supply and demand, labor and human capital, exchange, and the effects of taxation on productivity. In sociology and anthropology he theorized on the nature of social cohesion, the effects of nomadic versus city life on culture, and the ways in which social bonds weaken as cultures move from a subsistence base to one of surpluses, and, eventually, luxury. He proposed that this progression was the ultimate cause of the cyclic downfall of empires. His political theory might best be summarized by his definition of government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself” which we must all ruefully admit is the case.   He made major contributions to the philosophy and method of history which includes such sentiments as, “History is a science,” “Myths have nothing to do with history and should be refuted,” and “To build strong historical records, the historian should rely on necessary rules for the evaluation of truth.”  Those in the know believe that Ibn Khaldoun was one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Few people nowadays realize that what is often referred to as the “Mediterranean Diet” has strong Arab influences dating back to the Middle Ages. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ibn Khaldoun’s ancestral, and actual, home of Andalusia in southern Spain.  This recipe is my modern adaptation from the 13th century anonymous cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh fi al-Maghrib wal-Andalus  (Book of Dishes from Morocco and Andalusia). It is for a raised dough (rather like egg bread) that is shaped into braids, shallow fried, and drizzled with scented honey then dusted with sugar. The original medieval recipe (which is typically vague about quantities and methods) calls for durum flour in preference OR plain wheat flour otherwise. You can choose your own proportions based on preference, experience with durum flour, and availability.  I prefer a 50-50 split because in bread making this makes a lighter product. The original recipe calls for both cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon.  What you buy in the stores today is Chinese cinnamon, also known as cassia. Cinnamon here means “true cinnamon” which is a different species and much more aromatic than cassia. However, you can use one or the other, or mix the two.

Dafaîr (Fried Dough Braids)

Ingredients:

Dough

10 ½ oz (300 gm) durum wheat flour, all purpose flour, or a mix of the two
¼ cup (½ dl) water
1 package ( ¼ oz/7g) fast acting yeast
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
½ tsp powdered saffron
2 oz (56 g) coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Vegetable oil for frying and coating the dough

Honey sauce

2/3 cup (1 ½ dl) honey
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp (50g) true cinnamon, cassia, or a mix
½ tbsp (7.5 g) finely ground lavender flowers or 1- 2 drops of lavender essential oil
caster sugar for dusting.

Instructions:

Put the yeast into a cup with 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes.

Put the flour and salt in a bowl and incorporate the water little by little. Then add the yeast.  Knead until the dough is elastic.

Pour the saffron into a bowl with the two eggs and beat the mixture thoroughly. Then pour it over the dough, add the almonds and mix them well together. Knead the dough again for a few minutes to be sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.  Oil the surface of the dough and place it in a clean bowl. Cover with a moist towel and leave it to rise in a warm place.

It should take about an hour for the dough to double in size but you should check it periodically starting after 45 minutes. If a finger pressed into the dough springs back immediately it has not proofed enough. If a finger causes an indentation that remains it has proofed too long.  You ought to be able to press in and have the dough spring back after about 5 seconds. Then it is ready.

While the dough is rising, gently heat the honey so that it is slightly more runny than when cold.  Add the cinnamon, as much ground black pepper as suits your tastes, and the lavender. If you are using lavender oil, add one drop and check for flavor.  Add one drop more if the flavor is too light. Keep warm.

Divide the dough into six portions. Sprinkle the worktop and your hands with flour. Take one portion of the dough and keep the rest covered with a towel. Roll and manipulate the dough until you have a thin sausage about 15 inches long. Cut this in three equal lengths and braid them together, pinching both ends when you are done.  Repeat for the other five portions. Let the braids rest for 15 minutes.

While the braids are resting, pour vegetable oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about ½ inch and heat until it reaches 340 F (170 C).

Place the braids gently into the skillet without overcrowding. You may need to do this in batches. Fry them  to a golden brown on the bottom , then flip them and cook the other side in the same way.

Place the cooked braids on racks over trays to drain. Don’t use paper towels because then they just continue to sit in the oil. You may pat them with paper towels though.

When the braids have drained, drizzle with the spiced honey, and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.

Yield: 6