Aug 082017
 

Today, August 8th, can be written 8/8 in both day/month and month/day systems, and in certain languages the words for eight-eight can have punning meaning. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, eight-eight  –  八八 (bābā) – sounds like 爸爸 (bàba – daddy), and so at one time August 8th was father’s day in China. It’s still father’s day in Taiwan and Mongolia, but not in the People’s Republic.

In Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, eight-eight is Nane Nane, which is also the name of an Agricultural Exhibition that takes place every year around this date [8/8] in varying locations of Tanzania. At the Nane Nane Agricultural Exhibition, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders (e.g., universities and research institutes, input suppliers or fertilizer producing industries) showcase new technologies, ideas, discoveries and alternative solutions concerning the agricultural sector.

In English, puns are generally treated as rather low-grade humor, but in many, many cultures and languages puns hold a special place. In Biblical Hebrew, for example, proper nouns, especially personal names, involve complex, often tortured puns. The first man is commonly called Adam in English, but in Genesis, Adam is not his name so much as what he is: a man (referred to in the text simply as ha-adam – the man), which sounds like ha-adamah, “earth” (making a pun out of the fact that “the man” was originally fashioned from “the earth”). Likewise Jacob, founder of the lineages of the 12 tribes of Israel, begins life with a name that sounds like “heel grabber” reflecting that he was the second born of twins who, by grabbing his elder brother’s (Esau’s) heel coming from the womb will ultimately usurp him as leader of a nation. His name is changed to Israel after he wrestles with an angel where is-ra-el puns with ish-ra-el – a man who fights with God. Absolutely every personal name in Genesis has a punning meaning which is lost in translation, but is the core of rabbinical and Talmudic analysis and reflection. Nobody minds that these meanings are puns rather than genuine etymological relationships. Puns have sacred power.

Chinese puns are immensely important in a number of different ways. Chinese puns and homophones work only in spoken language because words that sound identical or similar are easily distinguished by Chinese characters in writing. Nonetheless the Chinese take puns and homophones very seriously. The number 4 is an unlucky number in Chinese culture because the word for 4 () sounds like the word for death (sǐ) – and, by coincidence, a similar pun and superstition holds true in Japanese (even though the Chinese and Japanese words are etymologically unrelated). Consequently, many Chinese high-rise buildings have no floors that have numbers with 4 in them. My first apartment in Yunnan was apartment #4 on the 13th floor, so I felt it had a kind of East meets West misfortune about it. Nothing bad happened there, I’m glad to say.

It is common in China for a bride and groom to exchange gifts of chopsticks because the word for chopsticks, 筷子 (kuàizi) puns with 快子 (kuàizǐ) which means “to have a son quickly.” Conversely, it is very bad luck for couples to give gifts of shoes because “shoes” (鞋 xié) in northern Mandarin is a homophone of “evil” (邪 xié). Similarly, it is bad luck to share a pear with your lover because “to share a pear” (分梨) is a homophone of “separate” (分离), both pronounced “fēnlí” in Mandarin.

The image of a carp swimming around lotuses is a common depiction of good fortune in China because “carp” (鲤, lǐ), “fish” (鱼, yú), and lotus (莲, lián) are near homophones with “profit” (利, lì), “surplus” (余, yú), and “successive” (连, lián) respectively.

Instead of a recipe today here are a few food puns. Sorry !!!

The wedding was so beautiful, even the cake was in tiers.

Lettuce not panic. Romaine calm.

Jun 192016
 

papa3

Today is the third Sunday in June which is Father’s Day in a great many countries – but not all by any means. It is Father’s Day in the countries I am, or have been, most closely associated with, namely Britain, the U.S., Argentina, and China, so I’ll use it as my day’s theme. Prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Father’s Day was celebrated in China on August 8. This was determined by the fact that the Eighth (ba) day of the Eighth (ba) month makes two “eight”s (八八, ba-ba), which sounds similar to the colloquial word for “daddy” (ba-ba,爸爸). It is still celebrated on this date in some areas.  Father’s Day in Italy is St Joseph’s Day (19 March).

I will add a caution. I tend to be a bit chary of celebratory days for things that I think should be normal, everyday things. I don’t like Valentine’s Day for that reason, for example. When I love another it is a permanent state, and I like to do “special” things all the time for that person, rather than on a particular day. Likewise “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” is one of the Ten Commandments. Not only is there no need to pick out a special day for this, but, in fact, having only one day in the year for such action is really counter to the whole spirit of the commandment. You should hold your parents in high esteem EVERY day.

I imagine that all these “special” days are promoted by greeting card manufacturers and the like to boost sales at slow times of the year. Valentine’s Day shifts people out of the doldrums of the post-Christmas blahs, and June is a slow month, so why not stick Father’s Day in there to liven it up? Maybe I sound cynical, but I am sure I am right. All that having been said, let me honor my own father today after a little discussion of the history of the celebration.

papa13

After Anna Jarvis’ successful promotion of Mother’s Day in Grafton, West Virginia, the first observance of a “Father’s Day” in the United States was held on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia, in the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South, now known as Central United Methodist Church. Grace Golden Clayton was mourning the loss of her father when, on December 1907, the Monongah Mining Disaster in nearby Monongah killed 361 men, 250 of them fathers, leaving around 1,000 fatherless children. It has been described as the worst mining disaster in US history. Clayton suggested that her pastor, Robert Thomas Webb, honor all those fathers.

Clayton’s event did not have repercussions outside of Fairmont for several reasons, among them: the city was overwhelmed by other events, the celebration was never promoted outside of the town itself and no proclamation was made in the city council. Also two events overshadowed this event: the celebration of Independence Day July 4, 1908, with 12,000 attendants and several shows including a hot air balloon event, which took over the headlines in the following days, plus the death of a 16-year-old girl on July 4. The local church and council were overwhelmed and they did not even think of promoting the event, and it was not celebrated again for many years. The original sermon was not reproduced in the press and it was lost. Also, Clayton was a rather quiet person, who never promoted the event or even talked to other people about it.

papa12 papa11

In 1910, a Father’s Day celebration was held on 19 June in Spokane, Washington, at the YMCA by Sonora Smart Dodd, who was born in Arkansas. Her father, Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, was a single parent who had raised his six children in Spokane. After hearing a sermon about Jarvis’ Mother’s Day in 1909 at Central Methodist Episcopal Church, she told her pastor that fathers should have a similar holiday honoring them. Although she initially suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, the pastors did not have enough time to prepare their sermons, and the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June. Several local clergymen accepted the idea, and on June 19, 1910, the first Father’s Day, “sermons honoring fathers were presented throughout the city.”

It took a long time for Father’s Day to be recognized officially in the US, and was not signed into law as a national holiday until 1972. People – rightly – feared that it would be commercialized and resisted movements in this direction. Oh well, it happened anyway. Stores throughout the US and Britain put out an unceasing barrage of advertisements for stuff to give dad. Very annoying.

My father died 35 years ago, so even if I were tempted to, I can’t run out and buy him a new power saw or tool belt. He wouldn’t have wanted them anyway. Maybe he would have been touched, though, if I had paid tribute to him in some way. In the family he was known as papa (and still is). This is the Spanish version of “dad” but I am not sure if it originated in Argentina, where one of my sisters and I were born, or in some other way.

papa8

This is what I wrote a few years ago:

Here’s my papa some time in the 1950’s — my sisters could probably narrow it down more. He was the man responsible for the fact that I was born in Argentina and had lived on 3 continents by the age of six. He was the man who showed me what fun it was to cook. He was the man who passed on to me the joy of knowledge. He showed me that it was all right for men to cry. He was the man who loved me. When I was an infant and he took my hand for safety on the street I was nine feet tall. He loved to play with me on his knees when I was a little boy — a happy memory. I never met his father but it was clear from the stories he told me that he idolized him. Fathers and sons are a powerful force of nature. Get between them only if you do not value your life. We are permitted to fight with one another — NO ONE else is.

Papa and I had our differences, of course, but I’m certainly not going to wash our dirty linens in public, and I take very seriously the Roman adage, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.  I’ll be his Mark Anthony. He was born in Glasgow, and his father was a horse breeder and mortician. On my papa’s birth certificate his father is listed as an ambulance driver because that was his service in World War I when my papa was born. Otherwise he kept a stable of pure-black horses and conducted funerals using a horse-drawn hearse. Papa always spoke admiringly of him.

papa9

Papa left Glasgow at the age of 18 and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, training at the Royal Naval College. Before World War II he served on several ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, visiting Argentina, India, Australia, China, and Japan, among other places, at a time when most Brits barely left their home towns. In this way he developed a zest for world travel, and began picking up languages. I don’t know the full extent of his linguistic ability, but I spent many hours with him as a boy while he happily conversed with people in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Danish. He held an honors degree from London University in Spanish, and most of his personal library – which we dragged around the world – was books in Spanish.

papa1

When World War II began he spent most of his time on ships in the Atlantic and was part of the evacuation forces at Dunkirk. In 1944 he was crippled in action and repatriated to a hospital in Sussex where he met my mother. Several months after he was taken to England, his ship was torpedoed with enormous loss of life. After recuperation he served in the Merchant Navy and retired after the war. Then the traveling began in earnest – Argentina, England, Australia, then back to England, and finally back to Scotland. I see in him a mirror of my own life. Though born in Scotland, he lived most of his life in other countries. Yet he was always a Scot at heart, and returned in later life because Scotland was his home. I was born in Buenos Aires but, courtesy of papa (and then on my own), journeyed the world until at age 59 I returned to Argentina and immediately knew that I was home.

Fatherhood, in turn, changed me beyond recognition. I used to say when my son was a baby — “you know you are a father when your son throws up on your best tailored suit, and all you care about is whether he is all right.” This is not the place to tout my own credentials as a father, but I will say that by becoming a father I became aware of what my papa had done for me.

papa2

My mother was the main family cook, with my elder sister pitching in. But on Saturdays my papa was the lunch cook. He also cooked on special occasions sometimes. His normal lunch dishes were curry and spaghetti. It’s important to realize that in the 1950s, when he began cooking for the family, Indian and Italian food were virtually unknown in England and Australia. Best you might do is get tinned, processed spaghetti (to warm up and eat on toast). Yet in that miasma of ignorance papa created amazing international cuisine. I have a vivid memory of him making ravioli from scratch once. The filling was brains, spinach, and cheese, and he hand made the pasta on the kitchen table.  He made the pasta by building a hollow mound of flour, cracking eggs into the middle, and working it all together with his hands, then rolling it into flat sheets with a rolling pin. Making the ravioli was genius. Papa laid one sheet of pasta on the table, dabbed the filling around and then laid a second sheet of pasta on top. We had a wooden utensil for shaping the ravioli, a little like the one in the photo, but larger and without the serrated edges. When papa placed it over the pasta it separated the sheet into square pillows which he then cut out with a pastry wheel.

papa5

My legacy from my papa in cooking was at least two-fold. First, he taught me that food was much more than roast lamb and boiled cabbage. English cooking has many merits, as I have been at pains to point out over the past 3 years, but papa taught me how much more there was to world cuisine by making it right in our own kitchen. Second, I grew up watching him cook exotic stuff, but just figured it was regular. So, when it came my turn to make pasta I was not remotely daunted; I figured it was normal. I should say too that both my sisters are superb cooks.

Spaghetti and tuco was a perennial Saturday favorite. I was a mature teen before I realized that “tuco” was not the regular Italian word for a tomato-based pasta sauce. Argentinos call that sauce tuco. In our kitchen my papa used several Argentine-Spanish words that I just assumed were the regular words for things. A big stock pot was an olla for example (pronounced /ozha/). How was I to know that no one else outside of Argentina called it that? Somewhere knocking around the house was a gaucho-style mate and bombilla set that I can still smell – the smell of Argentina. Late night if papa were hungry he’d break out the skillet and make a classic Argentine tortilla. That’s how I learned to make them. Argentine Milanesa was a favorite dinner.

Argentine tuco is, of course, derived from Italian pasta sauces. Papa’s tuco was close to a Bolognese sauce. You can find them meatless in some households in Buenos Aires but usually they contain a lot of ground beef. Papa, like me, was not wedded to recipes, and in any case it’s been 55 years since I last tasted his offering. This is my recipe based on what I remember. The main point is that you are aiming for a sauce in which the meat is prominent and the consistency is thick. Oregano is commonly available in Buenos Aires, but my papa did not use it for tuco, and it is not a usual ingredient for the sauce in Argentina. Garlic and onion are the prime flavorings. Papa normally used lard for frying, but once he used olive oil and was delighted with it. He said that the aroma of it heating reminded him of olive groves in Italy. For health and taste I’d go with olive oil. Argentinos use beef but my papa used lamb or beef depending on what was available. Lamb was more usual in Australia.

papa6

Tuco

Ingredients

500 g ground beef
500 g tinned tomatoes, chopped with juice
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
vegetable oil
1 cup beef stock
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the beef and brown it gently. You will probably need a wooden spoon to break it up and separate it, so that you do not have any clumps. The ground beef pieces should all be separate.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, the tomato paste, the garlic, and the beef stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Simmer gently, uncovered, over low heat for about an hour. You want the sauce to be very thick and meaty.

Serve over cooked spaghetti.