Sep 212017

Today is the feast of St Matthew the Apostle (מַתִּתְיָהוּ‎‎ Mattityahu or מתי‎ Mattay, “Gift of YHVH”; Ματθαῖος Matthaios) who, according to the Greek Bible, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, was one of the four Evangelists. Well, Matthew the Apostle and the person who wrote the gospel that became the Gospel According to Matthew are without a doubt two different people, but they both get celebrated today (as the same person), so I’ll go with the flow even though I’m more interested in the gospel than in the apostle who is a tad one dimensional.

Matthew the apostle is mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and Matthew 10:3 as a publican who, while sitting at the “receipt of custom” in Capernaum, was called to follow Jesus. Those passages suggest that Matthew collected taxes from the Judean people for Herod Antipas. That’s how he’s characterized in Christian tradition. Matthew is also listed among the twelve, but without identification of his background, in Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. In passages parallel to Matthew 9:9, both Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 describe Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi, the son of Alphaeus, but Mark and Luke never explicitly equate this Levi with the Matthew named as one of the twelve apostles. That’s the sum total of what we know from the gospels.  As such the information is not much of an addition to the gospel story. The gospel attributed to Matthew has much more to offer.

First we must understand that the gospel was originally anonymous and was not attributed to the apostle Matthew until the 2nd century. Scholars usually date it in the period 80 to 90 CE which means it’s highly unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness, let alone an apostle. The gospel itself does not claim to have been written by an eyewitness, and the scholarly consensus is that it, and Luke, were written using Mark as a source book. What is most interesting to me are the parts of Matthew that are not found in the other gospels, and the special spin that Matthew puts on materials it has in common with the other gospels.  I’ll just hint at the complexity here.

That Matthew was written by a Jew is patent from the opening genealogy.  Genealogies were of enormous importance and interest to writers of the Hebrew Bible, and many laypersons tend to skip over the lists of “X begat Y” because they don’t know how to read them.  I am an anthropologist, so I know better.  First question to ask is, “Who begins the genealogy?” This is the person whose identity is critical.  In Matthew the genealogy of Jesus begins with Abraham emphasizing that he was one of God’s chosen people destined to inherit Israel. Matthew wants to make it clear with his genealogy that Jesus was a Jew. (By contrast, Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus to Adam, emphasizing that Jesus was a man). Matthew’s genealogy (and other parts of the gospel) tells us, by inference, that the author was a Jew who was intent on proving that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. The rest of the genealogy cements this point, with stress on the fact that every 14 generations there was a key event in Jewish messianic history, thus: Abraham, king David, Babylonian Exile, Jesus.

The nativity of Jesus in Matthew is unique and quite different from the story in Luke (the only other place in the gospels where the narrative appears). Mark and John launch straight into the baptism and the ministry with no childhood tales. Matthew’s version has no manger, shepherds, angels etc. He mentions the Magi (Wise Men from the east), then gives us the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. So we can add gold, frankincense and myrrh, plus the star to our Christmas decorations, and if we pay attention (as I do), we add Epiphany, not to mention the 12 days of Christmas into the equation.

For me the centerpiece of Matthew, and Christianity in general, is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 to 7).  All you need to know about Christianity is there. Here you’ll find the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, along with a ton of pithy sayings that sum up discipleship and the Christian life.  It is bedrock for me; the place I return again and again. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus never delivered the sermon as given in Matthew, but it contains original sayings from lists that must have been widely circulated after Jesus died. It’s possible that it’s like the preaching of Jesus even if it is not an exact copy.  We have scores of examples in ancient Greek and Latin texts of speeches given by key people at critical moments that no one expected to be verbatim transcripts. What was necessary was to convey the essence of a speech, not the precise wording. I imagine that that is what Matthew was aiming for.

Our recipe for the day is easily taken from Matthew 14:

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.  

Bread and fish is a great combination.  Of course, if you want to be hyper-New York Jewish you should have lox (smoked salmon) with cream cheese on a bagel (I like mine toasted). When I am in England I eat buttered bread and smoked fish all the time. It’s easy to find smoked halibut, trout, and (especially) whiting. When I was a small boy (preschool) in Eastbourne, on the south coast, my mother sometimes made me poached whole plaice which she served with brown bread.  For reasons I still cannot fathom, she thought the brown bread would prevent the tiny bones from getting stuck in my throat. Sanity and English mothers are rare companions.

Take this day as your opportunity to experiment with the bread and fish of your choice.

May 172017

On this date in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found among some pieces of rock that had been retrieved from the Antikythera shipwreck in Greece 2 years earlier, one piece of rock that had a gear wheel embedded in it. Stais initially believed it was an astronomical clock, but most scholars at the time considered the device to be an anachronism of some sort, too complex to have been constructed during the same period as the other pieces that had been discovered with it (dated around the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE). Nope !! What is now called the Antikythera mechanism is, in fact, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, as well as a four-year cycle of athletic games that was similar, but not identical, to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.  Nothing like it would re-emerge in Europe for 15 centuries. There is so much about the ancient world that remains a mystery (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, etc.).

The Antikythera mechanism was found to be housed in a 340 mm (13 in) × 180 mm (7.1 in) × 90 mm (3.5 in) wooden box but full analysis of its form and uses has only recently been fully performed.  In fact after Stais discovered it, it was ignored for 50 years, but then gradually scientists of various stripes, including historians of science, looked into it, and research into the mechanism is ongoing. Derek J. de Solla Price of Yale became interested in it in 1951, and in 1971, both Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos made X-ray and gamma-ray images of the 82 fragments.

The mechanism is clearly a complex clockwork device composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University were able to look inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to around 150-100 BCE and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was first described by the astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE, and so it’s possible that he was consulted in the machine’s construction. Its remains were found as one lump later separated into three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation work. Four of these fragments contain gears, while inscriptions are found on many others. The largest gear is approximately 140 mm (5.5 in) in diameter and originally had 224 teeth.

It is not known how the mechanism came to be on the sunken cargo ship, but it has been suggested that it was being taken from Rhodes to Rome, together with other looted treasure, to support a triumphal parade being staged by Julius Caesar. The mechanism is not generally referred to as the first known analogue computer, and the quality and complexity of the mechanism’s manufacture suggests it has undiscovered predecessors made during the Hellenistic period.

In 1974, Price concluded from the gear settings and inscriptions on the mechanism’s faces that it was made about 87 BCE and lost only a few years later. Jacques Cousteau and associates visited the wreck in 1976 and recovered coins dated to between 76 and 67 BCE. Though its advanced state of corrosion has made it impossible to perform an accurate compositional analysis, it is believed the device was made of a low-tin bronze alloy (of approximately 95% copper, 5% tin). All its instructions are written in Koine Greek, and the consensus among scholars is that the mechanism was made in the Greek-speaking world.

In 2008, continued research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project suggested the concept for the mechanism may have originated in the colonies of Corinth, since they identified the calendar on the Metonic Spiral as coming from Corinth or one of its colonies in Northwest Greece or Sicily. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and the home of Archimedes, which, so the Antikythera Mechanism Research project argued in 2008, might imply a connection with the school of Archimedes. But the ship carrying the device also contained vases in the style common in Rhodes of the time, leading to a hypothesis that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius on that island. Rhodes was busy trading port in antiquity, and also a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering, home to the astronomer Hipparchus, active from about 140 BCE to 120 BCE. That the mechanism uses Hipparchus’s theory for the motion of the moon suggests the possibility he may have designed, or at least worked on it. Finally, the Rhodian hypothesis gains further support by the recent decipherment of text on the dial referring to the dating (every 4 years) of the relatively minor Halieia games of Rhodesl. In addition, it has recently been argued that the astronomical events on the parapegma (almanac plate) of the Antikythera Mechanism work best for latitudes in the range of 33.3-37.0 degrees north. Rhodes is located between the latitudes of 35.5 and 36.25 degrees north.

Using analysis of existing fragments various attempts have been made on paper, and in metal, to reconstruct a working model of the mechanism.

Some of the earliest Greek recipes extant mention the use of cheese. In book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets the Cyclops Polyphemus in cave who, on returning with his sheep and goats from the fields, milks them and makes cheese with the milk. Feta is made from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk, so some food historians conjecture that feta or something akin may date from the 8th century BCE (Homer’s era).

One of the oldest Greek recipes, although hard to interpret accurately, calls for fish baked with cheese and herbs.  I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand to experiment at the moment, and recipes for baked or fried fish and feta that I have available, all call for New World ingredients such as tomatoes and zucchini. My suggestion would be to coat a roasting pan with olive oil, lay in some Mediterranean fish fillets, and top them with crumbled feta mixed with either yoghurt or breadcrumbs seasoned with dill, salt and pepper. Garlic and onions would make good seasonings as well. Bake at 375˚F for 20 to 25 minutes and serve with boiled potatoes and a green salad.

If you don’t want to be quite so adventurous, fill halved pitas with a mix of feta, chives and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, and grill briefly until the pitas are golden and the feta is soft.

Jan 282017


Today is the first  day of the Chinese New Year, also known as the beginning of “Spring Festival” (春节;  Chūn Jié) a major festival in Mainland China, as it has been for centuries. Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February. Today (2017) marks the beginning of the year of the Rooster. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor deities as well as ancestors. Nowadays Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations all over the world.


Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red color paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity”. Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes.


The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight. It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks, and to make as much of a din as possible to chase off evil spirits. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked on the days before. On this day, it is also considered bad luck to use a broom. Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time to honor one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.


Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. Members of the family who are married also give red envelopes containing cash, known as hongbao (红包), as a form of blessing and to suppress the challenges associated with the coming year, to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers. Business managers also give bonuses through red packets to employees for good luck, smooth-sailing, good health and wealth.


While fireworks and firecrackers are traditionally very popular, some regions have banned them due to concerns over fire hazards. For this reason, various city governments (e.g., Kowloon, Beijing, Shanghai for a number of years) issued bans over fireworks and firecrackers in certain precincts of the city. As a substitute, large-scale fireworks display have been launched by governments in such city states as Hong Kong and Singapore. However, it is a tradition that the indigenous peoples of the walled villages of New Territories, Hong Kong are permitted to light firecrackers and launch fireworks in a limited scale.  Despite the official bans, though, you’ll still find kids setting off firecrackers around the streets when they think no one is watching.


Certain dishes are eaten during the Chinese New Year for their symbolic meaning. The auspicious symbolism of these foods is based on their pronunciations or appearance. Not only do the dishes themselves matter, but also the preparation, and ways of serving and eating mean a lot.  First and foremost, head and tail must be left on. Generally speaking, the Chinese prefer to buy fish alive, and even ordinary supermarkets have live fish tanks.


Fish is an important component of a New Year’s feast. In Chinese, “fish” (鱼 Yú /yoo/) sounds like ‘surplus’.  What fish should be chosen for the New Year feast is based on auspicious homophonics.

Crucian carp: As the first character of crucian carp’ (鲫鱼 jìyú /jee-yoo/) sounds like the Chinese word 吉 (jí /jee/ “good luck”), eating crucian carp is considered to bring good luck for the next year.

Chinese mud carp: The first part of the Chinese for mud carp” (鲤鱼 lǐyú /lee-yoo/) is pronounced like the word for gifts (礼 lǐ /lee/). So Chinese people think eating mud carp during the Chinese New Year symbolizes wishing for good fortune.

Catfish: The Chinese for catfish” (鲶鱼 niányú) sounds like 年余 (nián yú) meaning  “year surplus.” So eating catfish is a wish for a surplus in the year.

The fish should be the last dish left with some left over, as this has auspicious homophonics for there being surpluses every year. This is practiced north of the Yangtze River, but in other areas the head and tail of the fish shouldn’t be eaten until the beginning of the year, which expresses the hope that the year will start and finish with surplus.

Chinese style Steamed Fish dish

There are some rules related to the position of the fish:

The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect.

Diners can enjoy the fish only after the one who faces the fish head eats first.

The fish shouldn’t be moved. The two people who face the head and tail of fish should drink together, as this is considered to have a lucky meaning.

Fish can be cooked in various ways such as boiling, steaming, and braising. The most famous Chinese fish dishes include steamed weever, West Lake fish with pickled cabbage and chili, steamed fish in vinegar sauce, and boiled fish with spicy broth.

Fish related good luck sayings involve typical Chinese plays on word sounds. For example:

年年有余 (Niánnián yǒu yú): May you always have more than you need! (Related to catfish).

鱼跃龙门 (Yú yuè lóngmén): Success in your exam! (Fish big splash)

Aug 082016
Dr Bob

Dr Bob

Today is the birthday (1879) of Robert Holbrook Smith,  also known as Dr. Bob, a U.S. physician and surgeon who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with Bill Wilson, more commonly known as Bill W. Bill W. is much better known both inside and outside AA because he is credited as the author of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism), in which all manner of AA philosophies are expounded, especially the 12 Steps. But it was the meeting of Bill W with Dr Bob that set the whole process of AA in motion, and without the collaboration of Bill W with Dr Bob it is unlikely that AA would have existed.

Dr Bob was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he was raised. His parents took him to religious services four times a week, and in response he determined he would never attend religious services when he grew up. Smith began drinking at university, attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Early on he noticed that he could recover from drinking bouts quicker and easier than his classmates and that he never had headaches, which caused him to believe he was an alcoholic from the time he began drinking. Smith was a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1902, he worked for three years selling hardware in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal and continued drinking heavily. He then returned to school to study medicine at the University of Michigan. By this time drinking had begun to affect him to the point where he began missing classes. His drinking caused him to leave school, but he returned and passed his examinations for his sophomore year. He transferred to Rush Medical College, but his alcoholism worsened to the point that his father was summoned to try to halt his downward trajectory. But his drinking increased and after a dismal showing during final examinations, the university required that he remain for two extra quarters and remain sober during that time as a condition of graduating.

After graduation Smith became a hospital intern, and for two years he was able to stay busy enough to refrain from heavy drinking. He married Anne Robinson Ripley on January 25, 1915, and opened up his own office in Akron, Ohio, specializing in colorectal surgery and returned to heavy drinking. Recognizing his problem, he checked himself into more than a dozen hospitals and sanitariums in an effort to stop his drinking. He was encouraged by the passage of Prohibition in 1919, but soon discovered that the exemption for medicinal alcohol and bootleggers could supply more than enough to continue his excessive drinking. For the next 17 years his life revolved around how to subvert his wife’s efforts to stop his drinking and obtain the alcohol he wanted while trying to hold together a medical practice in order to support his family and his drinking.

In January 1933, Anne Smith attended a lecture by Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group. For the next two years she and Dr Bob attended local meetings of the group in an effort to solve his alcoholism, but recovery eluded him until he met Bill Wilson on May 13, 1935.

Bill W

Bill W

Bill W was trying to stay sober by helping other alcoholics through the Oxford Group in New York, but was in Akron on a business trip that had proven unsuccessful, and was in fear of relapsing. Recognizing the danger, he made inquiries about any local alcoholics he could talk to and was referred to Dr Bob by Henrietta Sieberling, one of the leaders of the Akron Oxford Group. After talking to Bill W, Dr Bob stopped drinking and invited Bill W to stay at his home. This was the seminal moment in the founding of AA.


Bill W and Dr Bob discovered a key ingredient in recovery at that time, namely, one’s sobriety can be bolstered constantly by listening to the stories of other alcoholics in a non-judgmental way. You might call it the “listening cure,” a sort of mirror of Freud’s talking cure. Bill W listened to Dr Bob, and vice versa, and both were helped by simply listening to the story of the other. This became the heart of AA, although it has been subverted in many ways since.

Generally speaking, AA is now known for the 12 steps, which have been incorporated into numerous programs of aid for addicts of all stripes, and which were originally devised by Bill W and Dr Bob in the course of their work together and with other alcoholics — and enshrined in the Big Book.  The 12 steps have their supporters and their detractors, without doubt. They require a spiritual awakening, self analysis, confession and so forth, that mimic certain aspects of puritan Christianity, even though the overtly Christian, even theistic, rhetoric was eventually toned down. The part of AA that too often gets underplayed is the listening cure. The most important point about the listening cure is that it is not about giving or receiving advice: it is about the simple acts of talking and listening. One alcoholic tells his story and another listens. The listener does not offer advice, but simply absorbs the story. Nor does the person telling the story offer any advice either. The story is usually some version of, “I did that and things got worse; I did this and things got better.” The listener is then left to absorb and interpret the story in any way that suits — in common AA parlance, “take what is useful, and leave the rest.”


Bill W’s great insight was that he benefited from hearing Dr Bob’s story, pure and simple. No advice or commentary was necessary. In this sense we can speak of Bill W and Dr Bob as co-founders of AA, even though Bill W became the poster boy, and Dr Bob tends to be forgotten. In Gregory Bateson’s terms (I’ll write a post on his work at some time), Bill W and Dr Bob were a dyad: each needed the other. Each needed a listener, and each needed to listen. The essential message, all too often forgotten nowadays, is, “don’t judge, don’t offer advice, just listen.” In my oh so humble opinion, the world would be a lot better place if everyone learned to listen more and talk less.

My recipes are a little like AA talks in that I tell you what I do and what I like, but you can do what you want. In fact, I’m not sure how many readers have actually tried any of my recipes. I do know that a friend used one of them once, and modified it to his own tastes. As far as I am concerned that’s the best way to use any recipe. I tell you what I do; you decide what you want to do. As long as it works, we are both fine.

With cooking for recovering alcoholics there is a rule of sorts, but it’s not hard and fast. AA recommends that you not cook with alcohol for two reasons. First, not all alcohol always cooks away when you use alcoholic drinks in recipes. Second, the taste of the alcoholic drink remains even if all or almost all of the alcohol burns off. In either case, the alcoholic in recovery can be reminded of drinking by the dish and may be, consciously or unconsciously, encouraged to pick up a drink. But you can’t really call this a rule. Active alcoholics vary greatly in the their habits, and so do those in recovery. Some, for example, are so sensitive to reminders of drinking that they will avoid drinking any liquid straight from a bottle (in the way they used to drink beer or whisky), others can cook with wine or spirits and not be fazed.

To be safe I’ll give you a summer lunch idea that I use for guests once in a while. It does not involve alcohol. Take from it what you want and leave the rest.  August in Mantua is hot and humid, so if I want to entertain guests it’s a good idea not to cook for them immediately before or during the meal because the kitchen gets really hot and spills over into the dining area. Besides hot dishes do not always go down well in the summer. So sometimes I make a lunch or dinner of different salads. The idea is to give diners an extensive choice of vegetables, carbs, and protein and let them choose how to make up a plate. This is a lunch of five salads I made in Argentina in the height of summer some years ago.


Green Salad


This is a blend of endive, fennel, and roquette (arugula). The idea was to have pronounced flavors and crunchiness.

Cabbage and Caper Salad


I’ve always been a fan of making salad from fresh cabbage, by cutting the cabbage into shreds and macerating it overnight in the refrigerator with some kind of vinegar.  In this case I used capers with all their juice. Shred the cabbage fine, put it into a bowl, dump a whole bottle of capers over it, mix well, and refrigerate overnight.

Fish Salad


Cooked fish and shellfish, served cold, work well as the protein element. This one was halibut, sea legs (imitation crab), and calamari.

Pasta Primavera


Pasta salad is a common summer favorite of mine. Cook the pasta al dente the day before. Drain it well and refrigerate it overnight. Next day add your choice of vegetables. In this case I used tomatoes, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Toss with extra virgin olive oil and oregano.

Potato Salad


I wash potatoes thoroughly and then dice them without peeling, and boil them until they are cooked but not too soft. Whilst the potatoes are cooking I sauté some ham or bacon until it is crisp. Then I drain the potatoes and refrigerate them, and break the cooked ham into pieces over the top. When cool I add mayonnaise and toss. Then I decorate with sliced boiled egg.

Make up a plate of these salads any way that you want.



Feb 182016


Today is the birthday (1745) of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta an Italian physicist and chemist, who is credited as the inventor of the electrical battery and the discoverer of methane. Volta was born in Como, a town in present-day northern Italy (near the Swiss border). In 1794, Volta married an aristocratic woman, also from Como, Teresa Peregrini, with whom he raised three sons: Zanino, Flaminio, and Luigi. His own father Filippo Volta was of noble lineage. His mother Donna Maddalena came from the family of the Inzaghis.

In 1774, he became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como. A year later, he improved and popularized the electrophorus, a device that produced static electricity. His promotion of it was so extensive that he is often credited with its invention, even though a machine operating on the same principle was described in 1762 by the Swedish experimenter Johan Wilcke. In 1777, he traveled through Switzerland. There he befriended H. B. de Saussure.

In the years between 1776 and 1778, Volta studied the chemistry of gases. He researched and discovered methane after reading a paper by Benjamin Franklin on “flammable air”. In November 1776, he found methane at Lake Maggiore, and by 1778 he managed to isolate the gas. He devised experiments such as the ignition of methane by an electric spark in a closed vessel.

Volta also studied what we now call electrical capacitance, developing separate means to study both electrical potential (V ) and charge (Q ), and discovering that for a given object, they are proportional. This is called Volta’s Law of Capacitance, and it was for this work that the unit of electrical potential has been named the volt.

In 1779 he became a professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia, a chair that he occupied for almost 40 years.

Luigi Galvani, also an Italian physicist and Volta’s main rival, discovered a property he named “animal electricity” when two different metals were connected in series with a frog’s leg and to one another. Volta realized that the frog’s leg served as both a conductor of electricity (what we would now call an electrolyte) and as a detector of electricity, and that the frog’s animal nature was not relevant to the process. He replaced the frog’s leg with brine-soaked paper, and detected the flow of electricity by other means familiar to him from his previous studies.

<Fair warning> a few paragraphs of science follow for those who are interested.

In this way he discovered the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (emf) of a galvanic cell, consisting of a pair of metal electrodes separated by electrolyte, is the difference between their two electrode potentials (thus, two identical electrodes and a common electrolyte give zero net emf). This is sometimes called Volta’s Law of the electrochemical series.


In 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Galvani, Volta invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which produced a steady electric current. Volta had determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and copper. Initially he experimented with individual cells in series, each cell being a wine goblet filled with brine into which the two dissimilar electrodes were dipped. The voltaic pile replaced the goblets with cardboard soaked in brine.

The battery made by Volta is credited as the first electrochemical cell. It consists of two electrodes: one made of zinc, the other of copper. The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water or a form of saltwater brine. The electrolyte exists in the form 2H+ and SO42−. The zinc, which is higher in the electrochemical series than both copper and hydrogen, reacts with the negatively charged sulfate (SO42−). The positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) capture electrons from the copper, forming bubbles of hydrogen gas, H2. This makes the zinc rod the negative electrode and the copper rod the positive electrode.


Thus, there are two terminals, and an electric current will flow if they are connected. The chemical reactions in this voltaic cell are as follows:


Zn → Zn2+ + 2e

Sulfuric acid:

2H+ + 2e → H2

The copper does not react, but rather it functions as an electrode for the electric current.

However, this cell also has some disadvantages. It is unsafe to handle, since sulfuric acid, even if diluted, can be hazardous. Also, the power of the cell diminishes over time because the hydrogen gas is not released. Instead, it accumulates on the surface of the zinc electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.

<Fair warning ends>

With this invention Volta proved that electricity could be generated chemically and discounted the prevalent theory that electricity was generated solely by living beings. Volta’s invention sparked a great amount of scientific excitement and led others to conduct similar experiments which eventually led to the development of the field of electrochemistry.


Volta drew the admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte for his invention, and was invited to the Institute of France to demonstrate his invention to the members of the Institute. Volta enjoyed a certain amount of closeness with the Emperor throughout his life who conferred numerous honours by him, including being made a count in 1810.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago, a frazione of Como, Italy, now named “Camnago Volta” in his honor. He died there on 5 March 1827, just after his 82nd birthday. Volta was buried in Camnago Volta.

Volta’s home town of Como is famous for its fish dishes made with fish from Lake Como. These include polenta e misultin (Alosa agone) featuring Como’s own style of polenta with shad, and risotto con filetti di pesce persico – persico is European perch (Perca fluviatilis). If you can read Italian you’ll find a good recipe here with numerous pictures as a guide . The dish is interesting because it features perch both in the rice and fried on top. As is common in some parts of northern Italy, the risotto may be creamy or drier – cook’s choice. This recipe uses carnaroli rice which is somewhat dry. Don’t be confused, as I was, when reading the recipe; il fumetto can mean cartoon or broth. Here you need broth !!! Make the broth with the bones and scraps from the fish you use for the dish. Be warned, making risotto properly takes years of practice.


Risotto con Filetti di Pesce Persico


250 g perch fillet
320 g carnaroli rice
30 g carrots, finely diced
30 g celery, finely diced
30 g red onions, finely diced
1L fish stock
60 ml wine white
1 tsp sage
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp thyme
45 g extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
15 g butter, cut in small chunks
salt and white pepper
grated zest of 1 lemon


Have the broth simmering gently in a separate pan on the stove, keeping a ladle handy.

Cut half the fish in small chunks and keep the other half as whole fillets.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, add the garlic for a few minutes, then remove it with a slotted spoon. Next add the carrots, celery and onion, sauté until wilted then add a ladle of broth. Let the broth evaporate, then add the herbs and rice. Toast the rice for a few minutes then add the wine and a little broth.

Here’s the part that takes practice. You must let the broth almost evaporate and then add another ladle until the rice cooks. The amount of heat is very tricky. It should not be so hot that the broth evaporates immediately, nor so low that the broth takes a long time to heat through. Keep evaporating and ladling broth until the rice is cooked but moist. During the cooking process you must keep stirring the rice.

Towards the end of the cooking process add the fish chunks, salt and pepper to taste, and lemon zest to the rice.

Meanwhile, if you have four hands, fry the whole fillets of fish to a light golden.

Remove the cooked rice from the heat and add the butter. Stir to melt. Serve the risotto on a warmed serving platter with the fried fillets on top.

Apr 042014


Today is Independence Day (1960) in Senegal, officially the Republic of Senegal (République du Sénégal), a West African nation. It is the westernmost country in the mainland of the Old World (or Afro-Eurasia) and owes its name to the Sénégal River that borders it to the east and north. Senegal is externally bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Mauritania to the north, Mali to the east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south; internally it almost completely surrounds The Gambia, namely on the north, east and south, except for The Gambia’s short Atlantic coastline. (see here).   Senegal covers a land area of almost 197,000 km2 (76,000 sq mi), and has an estimated population of about 13 million. The climate is tropical with two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season.


Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, is located at the westernmost tip of the country on the Cap-Vert peninsula. About 500 kilometers (310 miles) off the coast lie the Cape Verde Islands. During the 17th and 18th centuries, numerous trading posts belonging to various European colonial empires were established along the coast. After French colonization of the territory called French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française, or AOF), the town of St. Louis became the capital; in 1902 it was succeeded by Dakar. When Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, it affirmed its capital as Dakar. The country is part of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  Senegal is also a member of the African Union (AU) and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States.

Archaeological findings throughout the area indicate that Senegal has been continuously inhabited since the Lower Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) by various ethnic groups. Some kingdoms were created around the 7th century: Takrur in the 9th century, Namandiru and the Jolof Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. Eastern Senegal was once part of the Ghana Empire. Islam was introduced through contact between the Toucouleur and Soninke in Senegal and the Almoravid dynasty (Berbers from northern Africa), who in turn promoted the religion within Senegal. The Almoravids, with the help of Toucouleur allies, used military force for conversion. This movement faced resistance from ethnicities of traditional religions, the Serers in particular. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Wolof converted peacefully due to the intervention of leaders such as Amadou Bamba, Malik Sy and Sayyidunâ Muhammad Al-imam Laye, who brought their followers with them. They saw Islam as a way to unite and resist European colonialism.


In the 13th and 14th centuries, the area came under the influence of the empires to the east; the Jolof Empire of Senegal was also founded during this time. In the Senegambia region, between 1300 and 1900, close to one-third of the population was enslaved, typically as a result of captives taken in warfare. In the 14th century the Jolof Empire grew powerful, having united Cayor and the kingdoms of Baol, Sine, Saloum, Waalo, Futa Tooro, and Bambouk. The empire was a voluntary confederacy of various states rather than an empire built on military conquest. The empire was founded by Ndiadiane Ndiaye, a part Serer and part Toucouleur, who was able to form a coalition with many ethnicities, but collapsed around 1549  with the death of the last emperor of Jolof, Lele Fouli Fak Ndiaye, who was killed at the Battle of Danki, which took place near Diourbel , in the ancient region of Baol . He was killed by Amari Ngoné Sobel Fall, the son of the head of the region at the time Amari Ngone Sobel Fall, who would become the first damel (king) of Cayor.

In the mid-15th century, the Portuguese landed on the Senegal coastline, followed by traders representing other countries, including the French. Various European powers—Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain—competed for trade in the area from the 15th century onward. In 1677, France gained control of what had become a minor departure point in the Atlantic slave trade—the island of Gorée next to modern Dakar, used as a base to purchase slaves from the warring cultures on the mainland.


European missionaries introduced Christianity to Senegal in the 19th century. It was only in the 1850’s that the French began to expand on to the Senegalese mainland – they had abolished slavery and promoted an abolitionist doctrine, adding native kingdoms like the Waalo, Cayor, Baol, and the Jolof Empire. French colonists progressively invaded and took over all the kingdoms except Sine and Saloum under Governor Louis Faidherbe. Senegalese resistance to the French expansion and curtailing of their lucrative slave trade was led in part by Lat-Dior, damel of Cayor, and Maad a Sinig Kumba Ndoffene Famak Joof, the king of Sine, resulting in the Battle of Logandème.

On 4 April 1959 Senegal and the French Sudan merged to form the Mali Federation, which became fully independent on 20 June 1960, as a result of the independence and the transfer of power agreement signed with France on 4 April 1960. Due to internal political difficulties, the Federation broke up on 20 August, when Senegal and French Sudan (renamed the Republic of Mali) each proclaimed independence.


Léopold Sédar Senghor was proclaimed Senegal’s first president in September 1960. Senghor was a very well-read man, educated in France. He was a poet, a philosopher and personally drafted the Senegalese national anthem, “Pincez tous vos koras, frappez les balafons”. He supported pan-African unity and advocated a brand of African socialism.


Ceebu jen (cheh-boo jen) is one of the most popular dishes in Senegal, especially along the coast, and is considered a national dish. Ceebu jen is a Wolof term meaning “rice and fish” – a mix of fish, rice, tomatoes and cooked vegetables that shows a strong resemblance to Spanish paella and Creole jambalaya. A wide variety of vegetables and fish can be used, making ceebu jen an extremely versatile dish. It can also be spelled thieboudienne, tiéboudienne, thiep bou dien, cep bu jën.

You can use whole fish or fish fillets. Any firm white-fleshed fish works well. If using fillets, try marinating the fillets in the parsley mixture (roff) instead of using it as a stuffing, then add the roff to the onions as they sauté. Most Senegalese also add small amounts of smoked, dried fish (guedge) and fermented snails (yete) to ceebu jen. They add an incomparable, smoky flavor. You can use whatever chile peppers suit your tastes.  Scotch bonnets are closest to Senegalese peppers for flavor and heat.  Use any vegetables you have on hand. Try yams, cassava, potatoes, green beans, zucchini, okra, or bell peppers.


Ceebu Jen


2 lbs whole fish (or fillets), cleaned
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
2 or 3 chile peppers, finely chopped
2 or cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
¼ cup tomato paste
5 cups light stock
3 carrots, cut into rounds
½ head cabbage, cut into wedges
½ lb pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cubed
1 eggplant, cubed
2 cups rice
lemons, cut into wedges



Rinse the fish inside and out with cool water and pat dry. Cut three diagonal slashes about 1/2 inch deep in each side of the fish. Mix the chopped parsley, chile peppers, garlic, salt and pepper and stuff the mixture (called roff) into the slashes on the fish.

Heat the oil in a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. Brown the fish on both sides in the hot oil and reserve.

Add the chopped onions to the hot oil and sauté until cooked through and just beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and about ¼ cup of stock and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the rest of the stock, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin and eggplant and simmer over medium heat for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through and tender. Add the browned fish and simmer for another 15 minutes or so. Remove the fish and vegetables and about 1 cup of the broth to a platter, cover and set in a warm oven.

Strain the remaining broth, discarding the solids. Add enough water to the broth to make 4 cups and return to heat. Bring the broth to a boil, stir in the rice and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked through and tender.

Spread the cooked rice in a large serving platter, including any crispy bits (the xooñ) sticking to the bottom of the pan. Spread the vegetables over the center of the rice and top with the fish. Finally, pour the reserved broth over all. Serve with lemon wedges. Ceebu jen is traditionally eaten with the hands from a common serving dish.

Aug 082013


Today is the birthday (1931) of Roger Penrose, mathematician, philosopher, and artist.  I am a big fan.  Some of you who read this blog regularly may wonder why I admire so many mathematicians; maybe this post will solve that puzzle.

Penrose was born in Colchester on the east coast of England, and is the brother of mathematician Oliver Penrose and of chess Grandmaster Jonathan Penrose. Penrose attended University College School and University College, London, where he graduated with a first class degree in mathematics. While an undergraduate he was already doing original research which he continued at Cambridge, taking his Ph.D. in 1958.

As a student in 1954, Penrose was attending a conference in Amsterdam when by chance he came across an exhibition of M.C. Escher’s work. Soon he was trying to conjure up impossible figures of his own and discovered the tri-bar – a triangle that looks like a real, solid three-dimensional object, but isn’t.

pen16   pen13

Together with his father, a physicist and mathematician, Penrose went on to design a staircase that simultaneously loops up and down. An article followed and a copy was sent to Escher. Completing a cyclical flow of creativity, the Dutch master of geometrical illusions was inspired to produce his two masterpieces.

penrose9  penrose7

In 1965, at Cambridge, Penrose proved that singularities (such as black holes) could be formed from the gravitational collapse of immense, dying stars. This work was extended by Stephen Hawking to create the Penrose–Hawking singularity theorems.  In 1969, he conjectured the cosmic censorship hypothesis. This proposes (rather informally) that the universe protects us from the inherent unpredictability of singularities (such as the one in the center of a black hole) by hiding them from our view behind an event horizon. Black holes have intense gravitational pull, constantly attracting matter towards their centers.  The event horizon is the boundary point beyond which nothing can escape this gravitational force. Hence we cannot know anything about what exists beyond this horizon because nothing, not even light, can escape to give us information. Proving this conjecture, and a stronger version which Penrose proposed 10 years later, are major outstanding problems within the field of general relativity.  Although the mathematics of these conjectures is beyond the comprehension of all but a few specialists, the general implications are easy enough to understand and have become part of popular culture.


Penrose is well known for his 1974 discovery of Penrose tilings. A tiling is a pattern of “tiles” (2-dimensional shapes) that can be arranged so that there are no spaces or overlaps on a flat surface. Squares and certain triangles are the simplest form of tiling (as you know from the tiles in your shower stall). Quilt patterns and tile patterns in mosques are more complicated tilings. Penrose tilings have two properties. (1) They are formed using only two different shapes of tiles. (2) They are aperiodic, meaning that you cannot copy an area of the tiling on to tracing paper and then shift the paper to another area of the tiling and have it match.  In simple, slightly inaccurate, layman’s terms, the local patterns do not repeat. They appear in nature in what are known as quasicrystals, and have become the inspiration for graphic design artists.

First Penrose Tiling

First Penrose Tiling



Mosque Tiles

Mosque Tiles



He was influential in popularizing what are commonly known as Penrose diagrams (causal diagrams). You see them a lot on the white boards in “The Big Bang Theory.”  Don’t worry, if you do not understand them; I guarantee the actors don’t have a clue what they mean either.  Incidentally, in 2010, Penrose reported possible evidence, based on concentric circles found in WMAP data of the CMB sky (don’t sweat it!), of an earlier universe existing before the Big Bang of our own present universe.


Penrose has written books on the connexion between fundamental physics and human (or animal) consciousness. In The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), he argues that the known “laws” of physics are inadequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness.  I’ve read it at least five times.  And now perhaps you get it why so many of my heroes are mathematicians.  Admiration from afar.

In honor of Penrose tilings I thought a recipe involving cooking on a tile would be appropriate.  You can cook anything on a tile that you would grill.  Fish is especially good cooked this way. Cooking on slate tiles is common in rustic cooking in France and Spain. The traditional method, called pierrade, involves heating a thick slab of slate over an open fire, but nowadays there is a modern tabletop version using an electrically heated tile on which diners select from a platter of raw meat and cook it to their own tastes on the tile. Yawn.


What I give you here is less about a specific recipe, and more a description of the method which you can play with. You will need two things: a good hot open fire and a thick piece of slate (or bluestone). When I lived in the Catskills in New York State, I had an outdoor fire pit what was no more than a rectangular wall of cement building blocks two blocks high, with several of the blocks on the bottom layer placed sideways so that the holes provided a draft for the coals.  Nothing pleased me more, summer and winter, than to build a roaring hard wood fire, let it burn down to coals and then cook away in every possible manner. You name it; I’ve cooked it in that pit: toast, whole pig, beef stew, baked apples, scrambled eggs.  One memorable day when my son was about 8 yrs old we spent the entire day by that pit cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, with s’mores (roasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between graham crackers) and various things on a stick as snacks in between.

For tile cooking I used a big slab of bluestone (feldspathic sandstone) which was readily available from local quarries.  Slate is more universally available.  You can get large pavers in home improvement stores in the U.S. and Europe. You just have to be sure that they are untreated; the thicker the stone, the better. They all eventually crack, but thicker ones last longer.  First thing you need to do is make sure the tile is thoroughly clean (each time you cook with it). Do not use soap, just lots of water and a heavy brush.  Build a good bed of coals evenly spread, leaning the slate nearer and nearer to the fire to heat gradually. If placed cold directly over the coals it will crack.  Using oven mits, place the tile on a grate or fire irons directly over the coals, 6” away.  Brush the cooking surface with olive oil or cooking oil. It should take about 30 minutes to get the tile ready for cooking. A drop of water placed on the surface should dance and skitter. You are now ready to cook fish, steak, chicken, or vegetables in the same manner as you would grill them.  The tile adds a wonderful earthy flavor. Here’s a favorite of mine: herbed fish with lemon. Any firm white fish will do. I’m partial to river trout given that my house was on a trout stream.


Tiled Fish with Herbs and Lemon


4 whole fish gutted and scaled (about 1 lb each).

Lemon slices

1 cup fresh fines herbes (fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil).  You can used dried, in which case you need 2 tablespoons in total.

kosher salt

black pepper

olive oil


Rinse the fish and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper inside and out. Place ¼ of the fresh herbs inside the cavity of each fish and then slot in two or three lemon slices. Lightly oil both sides of the fish.

Place the fish in the center of the tile and cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes per side, or until opaque, but still moist in the thickest part.

Serves 4.

As an accompaniment I usually cut open baking potatoes, place a knob of butter in each, and then wrap them tightly in foil. They can be cooked in the coals. Start them about 15 minutes before the fish.  Whilst eating the fish you can make baked apples by coring cooking apples, filling the cored hole with butter, brown sugar and sweet spices such as cloves or allspice, wrapping in foil, and cooking in the coals.  These usually take no more than 20 minutes to cook if the coals are still hot.