Mar 062019
 

Today is the birthday (1619) of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, French novelist, playwright and epistolarian with a penchant for fighting duels. The facts of his life and ancestry are shrouded in mystery and obfuscation such that he is known nowadays more from Edmond Rostand’s, drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, which is more invention than confirmed biography. I’ll leave you to sort through the conflicting information if you are interested, and simply hit some points that amuse me.

Cyrano’s baptismal record (which was not discovered until relatively recently, since it for a long time it was not clear where he was born), reads (in translation):

The sixth of March one thousand six hundred and nineteen, Savinien, son of Abel de Cyrano, squire, Lord of Mauvières, and of the lady Espérance Bellenger, the godfather, nobleman Antoine Fanny, King’s Counsellor and Auditor in his Court of Finances, of this parish, the godmother the lady Marie Fédeau, wife of nobleman Master Louis Perrot, Counsellor and Secretary to the King, Household and Crown of France, of the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

In 1622, Abel de Cyrano left Paris with his family and went to settle on his lands at Mauvières and Bergerac in the Vallée de Chevreuse, which had come to him in part after the death of his mother in 1616.

His possessions, situated on the banks of the Yvette River in the parish of Saint-Forget, had been purchased by Savinien I de Cyrano forty years earlier from Thomas de Fortboys, who had bought them himself in 1576 from Lord Dauphin de Bergerac (or Bergerat), whose ancestors had possessed them for more than a century. Cyrano began his basic education in rural schools, but because he paid so little attention to his studies in this setting, his father sent him to school in Paris. Where he went to school is unknown. In 1636, his father sold his estate and returned to Paris. It is not at all certain that Cyrano moved back in with them. At the age of 19, he entered a corps of the guards, serving in the campaigns of 1639 and 1640. As an officer he was notorious for his dueling and boasting. He is said to have left the military and returned to Paris to pursue literature, producing tragedies cast in the orthodox classical mode.

The model for the Roxane character of the Rostand play was Bergerac’s cousin, who lived with his sister, Catherine de Bergerac, at the Convent of the Daughter of the Cross. As in the play, Bergerac did fight at the Siege of Arras (1640) a battle of the Thirty Years’ War between French and Spanish forces in France (though this was not the more famous final Battle of Arras, fought 14 years later). One of his confrères in the battle was the baron Christian of Neuvillette, who married Cyrano’s cousin. However, the plotline of Rostand’s play, involving Roxane and Christian, is entirely fictional.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s works L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (Another World, or the States and Empires of the Moon), published posthumously, (1657) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662) are classics of early modern science fiction. In the former, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers (it may be the earliest description of a space flight by use of a vessel that has rockets attached) and meets the inhabitants. The moon-men have four legs, firearms that shoot game and cook it, and talking earrings used to educate children. His mixture of science and romance in these two works furnished a model for many subsequent writers, among them Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe and probably Voltaire. Corneille and Molière freely borrowed ideas from Le Pédant joué.

Rostand’s play suggests that Cyrano was injured by a falling wooden beam in 1654 while entering the house of his patron, the Duc D’Arpajon. However, the editor of Cyrano’s works, Madeleine Alcover, uncovered a contemporary text which suggests an attack on the duke’s carriage in which a member of his household was injured. It is as yet inconclusive as to whether or not his death was a result of the injury, or an unspecified disease. He died over a year later on July 28th, 1655, aged 36, at the house of his cousin, Pierre De Cyrano, in Sannois. He was buried in a church in Sannois. However, there is strong evidence to support the theory that his death was a result of a botched assassination attempt as well as further damage to his health caused by a period of confinement in a private asylum, orchestrated by his enemies, who succeeded in enlisting the help of his own brother Abel de Cyrano.

Food features as a motif in Rostand’s play, but not in Cyrano’s actual works, so here is a 17th century recipe from Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois (1691). It’s a relatively simply fish salad dressed with what was called “ramolade” but this dressing is much simpler than the later remoulade of haute cuisine.

Salades de poissons

À plusieurs filets de poisson on fait une sausse qu’on appelle ramolade, composée de persil haché de ciboule hachée, des anchois hachés, des câpres hachées, le tout mis dans un plat, avec un peu de sel, de poivre, de muscade, d’huile & de vinaigre bien délayez ensemble : & après avoir dressé vos filets dans son plat, on les arrose de cette ramolade ; & à quelques plats on y ajoute du jus de citron, pour les servir froids.

Fish salad

For all kinds of fish fillets you prepare a sauce that is called ‘ramolade’, consisting of chopped parsley, chopped chives, chopped anchovy, chopped capers. Put all this on a plate with a little salt, pepper, nutmeg, oil and vinegar, well mixed together. And after having arranged the fillets on their plates, sprinkle this ramolade over them. To some plates you can add lemon juice to serve them cold.

Oct 202018
 

Today is the birthday (1859) of John Dewey, a US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey is one of the primary figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology. Dewey was a well-known public intellectual in his day, he was also a major voice of progressive education and liberalism. Although Dewey is known best for his publications about education, he also wrote about many other topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics. To try to keep this post under control I’ll speak to his philosophy of education only. Even so, things may get lengthy.

Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916), Schools of To-morrow (c.1915) with Evelyn Dewey, and Experience and Education (1938). Several themes recur throughout these writings. Dewey continually argues that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning.

The ideas of democracy and social reform are continually discussed in Dewey’s writings on education. Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. In addition to helping students realize their full potential, Dewey goes on to suggest that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform.

In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, “the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened.” He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge.

At the same time, Dewey was alarmed by many of the “child-centered” excesses of educational-school pedagogues who claimed to be his followers, and he argued that too much reliance on the child could be equally detrimental to the learning process. According to Dewey, the potential flaw in this line of thinking is that it minimizes the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher. Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. He argued that “if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind”

In The School and Society and Democracy of Education, Dewey claims that rather than preparing citizens for ethical participation in society, schools cultivate passive pupils via insistence upon mastery of facts and disciplining of bodies. Rather than preparing students to be reflective, autonomous and ethical beings capable of arriving at social truths through critical and intersubjective discourse, schools prepare students for docile compliance with authoritarian work and political structures, discourage the pursuit of individual and communal inquiry, and perceive higher learning as a monopoly of the institution of education. For Dewey and his philosophical followers, education stifles individual autonomy when learners are taught that knowledge is transmitted in one direction, from the expert to the learner. Dewey not only re-imagined the way that the learning process should take place, but also the role that the teacher should play within that process. Dewey’s qualifications for being a teacher were, a natural love for working with young children, a natural propensity to inquire about the subjects, methods and other social issues related to the profession, and a desire to share this acquired knowledge with others, and not a set of outwardly displayed mechanical skills.

For many, education’s purpose is to train students for work by providing the student with a limited set of skills and information to do a particular job. As Dewey notes, this limited vocational view is also applied to teacher training schools who attempt to quickly produce proficient and practical teachers with a limited set of instructional and discipline skills needed to meet the needs of the employer and demands of the workforce. For Dewey, the school and the classroom teacher, as a workforce and provider of a social service, have a unique responsibility to produce psychological and social goods that will lead to both present and future social progress.

The best indicator of teacher quality, according to Dewey, is the ability to watch and respond to the movement of the mind with keen awareness of the signs and quality of the responses he or her students exhibit with regard to the subject-matter presented. As Dewey notes, “I have often been asked how it was that some teachers who have never studied the art of teaching are still extraordinarily good teachers. The explanation is simple. They have a quick, sure and unflagging sympathy with the operations and process of the minds they are in contact with. Their own minds move in harmony with those of others, appreciating their difficulties, entering into their problems, sharing their intellectual victories.” Such a teacher is genuinely aware of the complexities of this mind to mind transfer, and has the intellectual fortitude to identify the successes and failures of this process, as well as how to appropriately reproduce or correct it in the future.

As well as his very active and direct involvement in setting up educational institutions such as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (1896) and The New School for Social Research (1919), many of Dewey’s ideas influenced the founding of Bennington College and Goddard College in Vermont, where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Dewey’s works and philosophy also held great influence in the creation of the short-lived Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental college focused on interdisciplinary study, and whose faculty included Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Charles Olson, Franz Kline, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Paul Goodman, among others. Black Mountain College was the locus of the “Black Mountain Poets” a group of avant-garde poets closely linked with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance.

This site https://learn.uvm.edu/program/john-dewey-kitchen-institute/ focuses on the John Dewey Kitchen Institute at the University of Vermont, Dewey’s alma mater, and also where he is buried. Dewey thought that cooking was a useful arena for his educational principals, less because it engaged students in practical activities, and more because cooking can spark curiosity, inquiry, and creativity if approached in the right way. At this point you might want to glance at the Chameleon Cook tab here if you have not already. My chameleon cooking is somewhat like Dewey’s idea of education. If you just take a recipe, learn it, and then repeat it mechanically you have learned nothing. If you take a recipe and begin to ask questions, you are more in line with Dewey: practice leads to inquiry via curiosity. “What would happen if I do it this way?” “Is this ingredient essential?” etc. etc. So . . . let’s take eggs Benedict. Classic eggs Benedict has four layers: toasted muffin, ham, poached egg, and Hollandaise sauce.  What would happen if you replaced the muffin with toast, or the ham with bacon, or the poached egg with a fried egg, or the Hollandaise with Béchamel?  Those are all very straightforward changes, but they get the process started. Get more radical, replace the ham with poached spinach. Those of you who know your cooking will know that all of these substitutions have been done before and are classic dishes in their own right. How are you going to be original? How about scrambled egg instead of poached? Really funky might involve switching out everything, such as, scrambled egg on fried zucchini, over a crumpet, with cheese sauce. Perhaps not. You figure out what works for you.

Feb 232017
 

Today is the birthday (1868) of William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois, U.S. sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, and editor. Now is an excellent time to champion Du Bois because of his brief return to the spotlight when Trump’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who is about as nakedly ignorant and ambitious as they come, tried to win points by quoting Du Bois in a tweet, but then misspelled his name. DeVos joins a long line of bigots who think that by quoting an eminent and respected African American they are cleared of all accusations of racism and bias.  Sorry – it doesn’t work that way.  What’s more DeVos most certainly does not subscribe to what Du Bois had to say, even though she quoted him:

Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.

DeVos, along with numerous colleagues on the far right, right, center, and slightly left of center all hold up education as the path to jobs and financial success, and hold schools accountable by such criteria.  To the best of my knowledge, no one in politics thinks education is of much value (as seen by constant cuts to education and threats to the whole involvement of the government in education at all), and when they do value it it’s because of its ability to turn out skilled workers, not for its intrinsic merits.  I am a rare bird these days because no matter what the subject matter, my underlying agenda is to teach students to think for themselves, and in the process to pursue truth, beauty, and happiness. I TEACH LIFE.

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African-American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for Blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which proposed that Southern Blacks would work and submit to White political rule, while Southern Whites guaranteed that Blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership skills.

Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of Black American soldiers in France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that Blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. He wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

Here’s a few salient quotes. I feel the need to annotate each one because each is so rich and insightful. But . . . I am also mindful that this is a cooking blog (even though it doesn’t always seem so) so I will resist:

There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.

I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty for Beauty to set the world right.

Human nature is not simple and any classification that roughly divides men into good and bad, superior and inferior, slave and free, is and must be ludicrously untrue and universally dangerous as a permanent exhaustive classification.

The world is shrinking together; it is finding itself neighbor to itself in strange, almost magic degree.

The time must come when, great and pressing as change and betterment may be, they do not involve killing and hurting people.

The cause of war is preparation for war.

I believe in God who made of one blood all races that dwell on earth. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and in the possibility of infinite development.

Amen and amen to all of that and more. Du Bois had quite a lot to say about African-American cooking habits as well as the role of African Americans in the food industry. His best known quote concerns soul food:

The deceitful pork chop must be dethroned in the South and yield a part of its sway to vegetables, fruits, and fish.

There isn’t a broad line between Black and White cooking styles in the South. Greasy greens, foods fried in lard, fatty meats such as pork belly are the mainstays of Black and White equally, and are equally unhealthy as a steady diet. Once in a while is all right. You can’t beat lard in some dishes. You don’t have to eat them every day.

Catering was dominated by African Americans in the North in the 19th century but they were supplanted by Greeks and Italians by the early 20th century. In antebellum Philadelphia there was practically an African-American monopoly on catering and restaurant business with many chefs and entrepreneurs claiming fame:

The institution of catering reaches its highest excellence in Philadelphia. This occupation was originated by a Phildelphia Negro, Robert Bogle, whose services were marked by such superlative excellence that one of his discriminating patrons, Nicholas Biddle, the leading Philadelphia financier of this time, was moved to poetic expression, and wrote his ‘Ode to Bogle’ in 1829. The Negro caterers have given to this art a quality and flavor which is unique and distinctive and which tradition is being continued along admirable lines by Holland’s, Augustine and Baptiste, and others.

As a tribute to Du Bois and his inclinations towards healthy eating I have created this dish which is simple, yet elegant – tonight’s dinner for me. You can call it Perch Du Bois or Perch Florentine. The term “Florentine” means served on bed of spinach. No need for a detailed recipe.  I found some perch in the market this evening and I had spinach on hand. There is no need for fat of any kind.  I don’t cook with salt either.

Wash your spinach well, drain it, but leave some water on the leaves. Heat a wide skillet over medium heat, add the spinach and let it cook down. Push the spinach to one side, then add a perch fillet to the skillet. If it is thick, cover it so that it cooks through evenly.  Turn once – carefully. Season with freshly ground black pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice and serve with boiled new potatoes.

Nov 292015
 

lma6

Today is the birthday (1832) of Louisa May Alcott, U.S. author and poet, known particularly for the loosely autobiographical/biographical novel, Little Women.

Alcott was born in Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on her father’s 33rd birthday. She was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May, and the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the eldest; Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest. The family moved to Boston in 1834, where Alcott’s father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott’s opinions on education and tough views on child-rearing shaped the young Louisa’s mind, mostly in reaction to them. His attitudes towards Louisa’s independent behavior, and his inability to provide for his family, created conflict between Bronson Alcott and his wife and daughters.

In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, the Alcott family moved to a cottage on 2 acres (8,100 m2) of land, situated along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. They described the three years they spent at the rented Hosmer Cottage as “idyllic.” By 1843, the Alcott family had moved, along with six other members of the Consociate Family, to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843–1844. After the collapse of Fruitlands, they moved to rented rooms and finally, with Abigail May Alcott’s inheritance and financial help from Emerson, they bought a homestead in Concord in April, 1845.

lmaorchard

Alcott’s early education included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, but she received the bulk of her schooling from her father, who was strict and believed in “the sweetness of self-denial”. She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom were family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled “Transcendental Wild Oats”. The sketch was reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the family’s experiment in “plain living and high thinking” at Fruitlands.

lma1

Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. Her sisters also supported the family, working as seamstresses, while their mother took on social work among the Irish immigrants. Only the youngest, May, was able to attend public school. Due to all of these pressures, writing became a creative and emotional outlet for Alcott. Her first book was Flower Fables (1849), a selection of tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1847, she and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, when they housed a fugitive slave for one week. Alcott read and admired the “Declaration of Sentiments”, published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, advocating for women’s suffrage and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election. The 1850s were hard times for the Alcotts. At one point in 1857, unable to find work and filled with such despair, Alcott contemplated suicide. During that year, she read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë and found many parallels to her own life. In 1858, her younger sister Elizabeth died, and her older sister Anna married. This felt, to Alcott, to be the breaking up of their sisterhood.

As an adult, Alcott was a staunch abolitionist and a feminist. In 1860 she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War broke out, she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863. She intended to serve three months as a nurse, but halfway through she contracted typhoid and became deathly ill, though she eventually recovered. Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. She wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered. Her main character, Tribulation Periwinkle, passed from innocence to maturity and is the main witness to events.

lma7

In the mid-1860s, Alcott wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensational stories under the nom de plume A. M. Barnard. Among these are A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. Her protagonists for these tales are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. She also produced “wholesome” stories for children, and after their positive reception, preferred them to adult fiction. Adult-oriented exceptions include the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1875), which attracted suspicion that it was written by Julian Hawthorne; and the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873).

lma5

Alcott became even more successful with the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the Roberts Brothers. Part Two, or Part Second, also known as Good Wives (1869), followed the surviving March sisters into adulthood and marriage. Little Men (1871) detailed Jo’s life at the Plumfield School that she founded with her husband Professor Bhaer at the conclusion of Part Two of Little Women. Jo’s Boys (1886) completed the “March Family Saga”.

In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine “Jo” on herself. But whereas Jo marries at the end of the story, Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her “spinsterhood” in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” However, Alcott’s romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott herself before her death. Alcott identified Laddie as the model for Laurie in Little Women, and there is strong evidence this was the significant emotional relationship of her life. Likewise, every character in Little Women seems to be paralleled to some extent, from Beth’s death mirroring Lizzie’s to Jo’s rivalry with the youngest, Amy, as Alcott felt a sort of rivalry for (Abigail) May, at times. Though Alcott never married, she did take in May’s daughter, Louisa, after May’s death in 1879 from “childbed fever,” caring for little “Lulu” until her death.

lma2

Along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age, who addressed women’s issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, “among the decided ‘signs of the times'”

Alcott suffered from chronic health problems in her later years, including vertigo. She and her earliest biographers attributed her illness (and death) to mercury poisoning. When she contracted typhoid during her American Civil War service she was treated with a compound containing mercury. Recent analysis of Alcott’s illness, however, suggests that her chronic health problems may have been associated with an autoimmune disease, and not acute mercury exposure. Moreover, a late portrait of Alcott shows a rash on her cheeks, which is a characteristic of lupus.

Alcott died at age 55 of a stroke in Boston, on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death. Her last words were “Is it not meningitis?” She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside now known as “Authors’ Ridge”.

lma3

I admire Alcott’s general outlook on life very much, but I’m afraid I don’t care for her writing. I’m fully in favor of her abolitionism and feminism, of course, but it’s the particulars I can’t always relate to. I don’t resonate with the “Yankee spirit” I guess. It’s not part of my personal cultural universe. I treat her March sisters trilogy more as a curiosity, or a window on an alien world, than anything else. When you’ve been raised in Argentina, Australia, and England there’s not much to hold on to. Maybe it’s also that I am not terribly comfortable in New England.

Several times I have come across seed-cake in Alcott’s writing at poignant moments in the narrative – something that sticks in my mind for some reason. I remember the cake from my childhood, but have not had it in over 50 years. There’s something very Victorian about it. I can’t say I like or dislike it. I’m not sure who made it in my household, my mother or my elder sister. It would be fitting if it were my elder sister. It’s more of a cake for tea time than for dessert, and growing up we rarely had tea time as such – except on special occasions such as Christmas Day. The signature ingredient is caraway seed, which I use only rarely in cooking – usually curries. It’s certainly a rather “adult” taste for a cake.

lma4

Here’s Mrs Beeton’s recipe. It has no rising agent, I note, which would make it dense and heavy. I’m given to wonder if this is a mistake. The recipe here http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/02/nigel-slater-classic-recipe-seed-cake which is similar but cut down in size, uses self-raising flour. I’d be inclined to follow that route. Beeton’s recipe is more like northern gingerbread or parkin, I think.

A VERY GOOD SEED-CAKE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of butter, 6 eggs, 3/4 lb. of sifted sugar, pounded mace and grated nutmeg to taste, 1 lb. of flour, 3/4 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 wineglassful of brandy.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour; add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, and caraway seeds, and mix these ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, stir to them the brandy, and beat the cake again for 10 minutes. Put it into a tin lined with buttered paper, and bake it from 1-1/2 to 2 hours. This cake would be equally nice made with currants, and omitting the caraway seeds.

Time.—1-1/2 to 2 hours. Average cost, 2s. 6d.

Sep 092015
 

lt3

Today is the birthday (1828) of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, a Russian novelist, essayist, and short story writer regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, a family estate located 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) southwest of Tula and 200 kilometers (120 mi) south of Moscow. The Tolstoys were a well-known family of old Russian nobility, tracing their ancestry to a mythical Lithuanian noble Indris. He was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy, a veteran of the Patriotic War of 1812, and Countess Mariya Tolstaya (Volkonskaya). Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives. In 1844, he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn.” I note something of the kind so often here about famous people who cannot abide formal education for one reason or another. Many of my own students are the same way. I was the same way at Oxford. I still can’t and I have been a teacher all my adult life. Tolstoy left the university in the middle of his studies, returned to Yasnaya Polyana and then spent much of his time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. It was about this time that he started writing.

lt9

His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61. During his 1857 tour, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that would mark the rest of his life. Writing in a letter to his friend Vasily Botkin: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens. Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”

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His European trip in 1860–61 shaped both his political and literary development when he met Victor Hugo, whose literary talents Tolstoy praised after reading Hugo’s newly finished Les Misérables. The similar evocation of battle scenes in Hugo’s novel and Tolstoy’s War and Peace indicates this influence. Tolstoy’s political philosophy was also influenced by a March 1861 visit to French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then living in exile under an assumed name in Brussels. Apart from reviewing Proudhon’s forthcoming publication, La Guerre et la Paix (“War and Peace”), whose title Tolstoy would borrow for his masterpiece, the two men discussed education, as Tolstoy wrote in his educational notebooks: “If I recount this conversation with Proudhon, it is to show that, in my personal experience, he was the only man who understood the significance of education and of the printing press in our time.”

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Fired with enthusiasm, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and founded 13 schools for children of Russia’s peasants, who had just been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. Tolstoy described the school’s principles in his 1862 essay “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”. Tolstoy’s educational experiments were short-lived, partly due to harassment by the Tsarist secret police. However, as a direct forerunner to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, the school at Yasnaya Polyana can justifiably be claimed to be the first example of a coherent theory of democratic education.

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Tolstoy died in 1910, at the age of 82. Just prior to his death, his health had been a concern of his family, who were actively engaged in his care on a daily basis. During his last few days, he had spoken and written about dying. Renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle, he had finally gathered the nerve to separate from his wife, and left home in the middle of Winter, in the dead of night. His secretive departure was an apparent attempt to escape unannounced from Sophia’s jealous tirades. She was outspokenly opposed to many of his teachings, and in recent years had grown envious of the attention which it seemed to her Tolstoy lavished upon his Tolstoyan “disciples”. I don’t know enough about Tolstoy’s private life to comment fairly. I find his Christianity with its devotion to the Sermon on the Mount inspiring, but I find it hard to reconcile that with his longstanding indifference to his wife. Maybe he should have been a monk. Many, many artists and intellectuals crave solitude to their work, and the company of like minds when they feel sociable.

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Tolstoy died of pneumonia at Astapovo train station, after a day’s rail journey south. The station master took Tolstoy to his apartment, and his personal doctors were called to the scene. He was given injections of morphine and camphor for pain, which did little except ease his death. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), which people don’t read any more. He first achieved literary acclaim in his 20s with his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based upon his experiences in the Crimean War. Tolstoy’s fiction includes dozens of short stories and several novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in works such as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal 20th century figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Bevel.

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I have to say that I found War and Peace a slog which took me some time to get through (same with Moby Dick and Les Misérables). 19th century intellectuals had a tendency to say in 1,000 words what could be expressed in 10. Still, one does feel a duty to them. Nonetheless, I would recommend his short story, “The Three Hermits” over War and Peace. It sums up his ideas about the church and spirituality most succinctly. You can find the full text here.

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2896/

We are also fortunate to have quite a few clips of Tolstoy and family pottering around Yasnaya Polyana.

In my researches I found this blog post for a lemon tart that the Tolstoy family loved. Sofia’s recipe book is now available as an iPhone app so you have ample opportunity to explore. Her lemon tart recipe is as follows:

One pound of flour, half a pound of butter, a quarter pound of crushed sugar, three yolks, one shot of water. Butter should be straight from the cellar, cold. The stuffing: Grate a quarter pound of butter, grate two boiled eggs with butter; half a pound of crushed sugar, grate the zest of two lemons and add the juice of three lemons. Boil until it grows thick as honey.

The call for “two boiled eggs” in the filling is a mistranslation for “two raw yolks” which makes much more sense, since you are creating a kind of lemon curd. This image is from the post and the URL is below. The post fully analyzes the brief recipe and gives a good conversion for modern cooks.

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http://www.foodislove.co/blog-1/leo-tolstoys-lemon-tart272015