Apr 142017
 

Today is Good Friday this year (2017). Good Friday commemorates the execution by crucifixion of Jesus and in most Christian denominations it is a very solemn day. When I was a youth in Australia and England not much happened in churches on Good Friday and pretty much everything was closed: shops, pubs, restaurants, etc. It was a rare public holiday when only the most essential workers reported for work. Absolutely everyone else had the day off. Any worker on an hourly wage who had to work received triple pay which was highly unusual (Christmas was the only other day when this was mandated). Double pay was the normal rate for overtime on holidays. The crucifixion may be the most painted subject in Western art history.

What happens on Good Friday ecclesiastically represents a deep divide between Catholic and Protestant traditions historically although these days there is some merging of ideas as some Protestant denominations become a bit more attuned to the re-enactment of Biblical events. One cannot help but be struck by the fact that all Catholic churches are dominated by a crucifix and Protestant churches emphasize the empty cross. It was drilled into me as a boy in the Presbyterian church that our focus is on the resurrection and not Christ’s suffering. I won’t belabor the point. When I was a parish minister some of my churches went on cross walks around the town on Good Friday with other denominations, and I joined in – semi-reluctantly.  Public displays of this sort do not appeal to me. The crucifixion was a hideous act of torture perpetrated on an innocent man, but it happened 2000 years ago. Whilst I abhor the act utterly, it is over.

The events of Easter were probably fixed very early in oral and written narrative because there were some eye witnesses to actual events. But these narratives are unsatisfactory as history as they are retold in the various gospel versions. Even if you accept the idea that the gospels were written by the men they claim as authors (which I don’t), none was a direct eye witness (although John obliquely claims to have been there). The much more likely story is that when Jesus was arrested, all the apostles scattered in fear of their own lives. The story of Peter’s famous denial of his association with Jesus during his trial is perhaps symbolic of what they all actually did at the time. The gospels all report that the women who had followed Jesus as disciples had no such qualms, and they both actively and visibly lamented his fate on his way to Golgotha and on the cross itself.

Slanting the interpretation of actual events to suit a particular ideology is not an invention of modern journalism. The gospel writers were masters of this trade. This is what we know. Jesus was arrested in the suburbs of Jerusalem in the evening after having dinner with his closest associates, he was tried and condemned to death, and was crucified. I don’t think many serious historians would dispute these bare facts, but there is endless speculation concerning the details.

The point that I want to emphasize is that ALL the gospels want to whitewash the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and lay the blame for Jesus’ execution squarely on the Jewish Temple authorities. The thing is that at the time Jewish authorities had wide latitude because the Romans feared insurrection in a troublesome province that could not be subjugated in the way that other parts of the empire had been. Religion was an especially touchy subject. Things finally came to a head roughly 35 years later in 70 CE when the Romans, tired of all their accommodations, simply crushed the people in a mass slaughter, destroyed the Temple, and dispersed the remnant of the population. The Romans were most decidedly in charge, although the Jewish leaders held considerable influence in Jesus’ day. So what really happened?

The gospel narratives are highly unsatisfactory. Their thrust is patent. According to the gospel writers, the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus out of the way because he was subverting their authority and they used the Roman governor as their shill to accomplish what they could not do legally. Pilate is made out to be an insightful man who just wants to keep the peace. His examination of Jesus leads him to two conclusions: that he is entirely innocent, and that he really is the Jewish Messiah. But . . . for the sake of order in the province he’s willing to go along with what the Temple priests apparently earnestly want. Just to underscore the point the gospels create this scene of Pilate displaying Jesus and Barabbas to the Jewish mob and asking which one they want freed, because, as governor, he has license to free one condemned man at Passover. The mob is content to free a murderer and let Jesus die. Can we really accept this scene historically?

That Jesus was condemned to death is beyond dispute. That a mob was asked to choose between him and another condemned man is highly questionable. Are we expected to believe that for a week Jesus was surrounded by adoring fans who were so loyal that the priests were afraid to even go near him, yet these very same people all of a sudden turned on him and wanted him dead? This strains credulity to the breaking point, although it makes good reading. Yup, mobs are fickle. This theme, in fact, permeates the gospels: Jesus performs miracles time and again, yet people, whilst being amazed at the time, simply turn away and go about their business. Why would they not do the same at a critical juncture?

It is unlikely in the extreme that Pilate had the capacity to release a condemned man on a holiday, and that, even if he had such leeway, he would use it. He decides Jesus is utterly innocent and Barabbas is completely guilty but lets the mob decide their fate? Seriously? I’ll happily accept that Roman authorities were arbitrarily capricious, but not that wanton. They had no qualms about crucifying hundreds of slaves who revolted to make a point; I can’t see Pilate letting a convicted murderer go on a whim.

Inasmuch as we can get at the truth at all I suspect that things were much less clear cut at the time. Certainly it was Passover time and feelings were high in Jerusalem. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the provinces had flocked into the city for this special occasion. Such pilgrims were especially attuned to the tenets of Jewish faith, otherwise they wouldn’t have been there. Many of them were taken with Jesus’ teaching because it was revolutionary. He was not condemning Jewish faith at root: far from it. He clearly affirmed the basics of Jewish teaching, but asserted that its basics had been subverted by rigid legalists, and the foundational message had been lost. Love (of God and others) comes first and the Law grows out of that, not the other way round. It’s that simple.

Some people were attracted to Jesus’ teaching, others weren’t. The Temple priests, notably, were not amused and wanted him out of the way. He was disrupting centuries old tradition that anchored Jewish identity (as well as their places in the hierarchy), even though it’s clear that he was a devout Jew in honoring the Passover, the Torah, and the like. His message was basic: “follow the spirit of the Law, not the letter.” The Romans would have been on edge at the time because the Passover’s clear message was that historically the Jews were enslaved by Egypt, but were miraculously freed under Moses. They could easily transform this message into rebellion against their current oppressors. The overarching outline of the gospels’ narrative is, therefore, likely to be accurate. Jesus was betrayed by one of his associates to the Temple priests, who, in turn, handed him over to the Roman leadership for disposal. The Romans were probably happy to oblige to keep the peace with the powers that be in the Jewish community, and that was that. All of Pilate’s wise philosophizing and hand wringing (and washing), is almost certainly an invention. This guy is a troublemaker; get rid of him. Case closed. His followers were left to make sense of all that followed.

Hot cross buns are the enduring staples of England and the nations of the former empire on this day. Good Friday just isn’t the same without one. I’ve never baked them myself because I’ve never seen the point. They are available, sometimes fresh from the oven, in bakeries and supermarkets worldwide. I can’t do any better.

Passionfruit strikes me as a much more interesting, and apposite, possibility for the day. I love the flowers and the fruit, which I use in a variety of ways. Early colonial missionaries in Latin America, when they discovered the indigenous vines, quickly exploited the complex flowers as a teaching tool. The flower has spikes protruding from the center, symbolizing the crown of thorns. Three stigmata symbolize the three nails and five anthers represent the five wounds Jesus received on the cross. The flower’s trailing tendrils were likened to the whips used in his scourging.

The vines are found everywhere these days. I’ve come across them in Argentina, Australia, Madeira, Kenya, Bermuda, China, and even spreading abundantly over a neighbor’s door when I lived for a short spell in the Oxfordshire countryside a few summers ago. As a boy I liked to have a passionfruit scooped out over vanilla ice cream – and still do. It’s a very easy and tasty treat. It’s hard to find unadulterated passionfruit juice, nectar, or preserves because of the expense involved. I don’t like mixtures with other fruit because the plain passionfruit pulp’s taste is exquisite. I’ll buy them only if I have no other choices. I have made passionfruit ice cream, which was heavenly, and soon gone.  Today I am making fresh whipped cream (unsweetened) with passionfruit pulp folded in. Sugar spoils the natural taste for me. All I’ll need is a spoon.

 

Sep 232016
 

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On this date in 1889 the original Nintendo Company was founded. That’s right – 1889.  It’s hard to believe because nowadays when we think of Nintendo we think of electronics, video games, and Mario. Nintendo Co., Ltd. (任天堂株式会社) is now a Japanese multinational consumer electronics and software company headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, and is one of the world’s largest video game companies by net worth. When it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi it produced handmade hanafuda playing cards. By 1963, the company had tried to diversify into several small niche businesses, such as cab services and love hotels!! Finally it hit on electronic games and was a giant success.  The original word Nintendo is popularly thought to mean “leave luck to heaven” but there is no evidence for this. The Kanji characters are just read as Nintendo.

Card playing in Japan has a long and chequered history. Playing cards were introduced by Portuguese sailors in 1549 when they landed in Japan, carrying the missionary Francis Xavier. The crew of his ship had with them a set of 48 Portuguese Hombre playing cards, and eventually card games became popular, along with their use for gambling. When Japan subsequently closed off all contact with the Western world in 1633, foreign playing cards were banned. The ban was useless, however. Card playing, and associated gambling proved impossible to eliminate, so the government eventually lifted its ban.

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Nintendo began as a card company named Nintendo Koppai (Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd.) which produced and marketed cards and a game called “Hanafuda.” Hanafuda literally translates as “flower cards” which refers to their designs. The twelve suits are all names of flowers representing the flowers that bloom over the 12 months of the year. The first cards that Nintendo produced were hand painted on mulberry bark. The handmade cards were slow to catch on, but then rapidly increased in popularity when the Yakuza (crime syndicates) used them in their gambling parlors. Thence, Yamauchi hired assistants to mass-produce cards to satisfy demand.

The cards are arranged in 12 suits of 4 cards each. The suits are the months of the year with a corresponding blossom. Here’s March represented by Sakura, the cherry blossom.

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There are 2 normal cards (1 point each), one poetry ribbon card (5 points), and one special card (10 or 20 points), in each suit. If there are two players, 8 cards are dealt face up on the playing field and each player gets 8.  The rest are the stock. Play is a little like gin rummy in that players try to form complete sets of suits, although the rules of play and scoring highly varied from place to place.

In 1956, Hiroshi Yamauchi, grandson of Fusajiro Yamauchi, visited the U.S. to talk with the United States Playing Card Company, the dominant playing card manufacturer there. He found that the biggest playing card company in the world was using only a small office. Yamauchi realized that the playing card business had limited potential and sought to diversify. He then acquired the license to use Disney characters on playing cards to drive sales. In 1963, Yamauchi changed the name Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. to Nintendo Co., Ltd. The company then began to experiment in other areas of business using newly injected capital during the period of time between 1963 and 1968. Nintendo set up a taxi company called Daiya. This business was initially successful. However, Nintendo was forced to sell it because problems with the labor unions were making it too expensive to run the service. It also set up a love hotel chain, a TV network, a food company (selling instant rice) and several other ventures. All of these ventures eventually failed, and after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, playing card sales dropped, and Nintendo’s stock price plummeted to its lowest recorded level of ¥60 (i.e. nothing).

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In 1966, Nintendo moved into the Japanese toy industry with the Ultra Hand, an extendable arm developed by its maintenance engineer Gunpei Yokoi in his free time. Yokoi was moved from maintenance to the new “Nintendo Games” department as a product developer. Nintendo continued to produce popular toys, including the Ultra Machine, Love Tester and the Kousenjuu series of light gun games. Despite some successful products, Nintendo struggled to meet the fast development and manufacturing turnaround required in the toy market, and fell behind the well-established companies such as Bandai and Tomy.

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In 1973, its focus shifted to family entertainment venues with the Laser Clay Shooting System, using the same light gun technology used in Nintendo’s Kousenjuu series of toys, and set up in abandoned bowling alleys. Following some success, Nintendo developed several more light gun machines (such as the light gun shooter game Wild Gunman) for the emerging arcade scene. While the Laser Clay Shooting System ranges had to be shut down following excessive costs, Nintendo had found a new market.

Nintendo’s first venture into the video gaming industry was securing rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey video game console in Japan in 1974. Nintendo began to produce its own hardware in 1977, with the Color TV-Game home video game consoles. Four versions of these consoles were produced, each including variations of a single game (for example, Color TV Game 6 featured six versions of Light Tennis).

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A student product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo at this time. He worked for Yokoi, and one of his first tasks was to design the casing for several of the Color TV-Game consoles. Miyamoto went on to create, direct and produce some of Nintendo’s most famous video games and become one of the most recognizable figures in the video game industry. In 1975, Nintendo moved into the video arcade game industry with EVR Race, designed by their first game designer, Genyo Takeda, and several more titles followed. Nintendo had some small success with this venture, but the release of Donkey Kong in 1981, designed by Miyamoto, changed Nintendo’s fortunes dramatically. The success of the game and many licensing opportunities (such as ports on the Atari 2600, Intellivision and ColecoVision) gave Nintendo a huge boost in profit and in addition, the game also introduced an early iteration of Mario, then known in Japan as Jumpman, the eventual company mascot. That’s how you go from cherry blossoms on tree bark to a jumping Italian plumber and make millions in the process.

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For a recipe I’m going to go with the card playing side of things, although my suggestion is suitable for video games as well. If you are holding a card party and are trying to figure out what snacks to serve the answer is simple: don’t serve anything that gets the players’ fingers sticky or greasy. Common folklore (much disputed) has it that the sandwich was invented by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat. It is said that when playing cards he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, so that he could eat without utensils, and the bread would prevent his fingers from getting sticky. This part may well be true – or, being a busy businessman and diplomat, he may have ordered them while he was working at his desk (as his biographer claims). Certainly he gave his name to the food item, and he played cribbage a lot (for money). But he did not invent the concept of the sandwich. Putting food between slices of bread goes back to antiquity. You can’t imagine that it took until the 18th century for someone to come up with the idea. Nonetheless, sandwiches are good card-playing snacks.

I’ve made a lot of different sandwiches in my time, and I like to be inventive. When I was living in a hostel in China with no kitchen facilities I always had a loaf of bread on hand and made sandwiches from whatever I could find at the local markets. That meant I ate a lot of combinations of spicy pickles, vegetables, and meat between slices of bread. I’m not going to stop you if you think that slapping some ham and cheese between bread is your idea of a sandwich, but it’s not mine. I make them from whatever looks good at the market that day. As a reminder from a recent post, here’s a fig and Gorgonzola sandwich I made last month using local products.

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My aim in making an interesting sandwich is to have a variety of tastes and textures and to make sure that everything is very fresh and locally produced where possible. When I can I like to toast the bread as well – adds color, flavor, and texture. Today I went to the market to see what looked good and came away with some Italian salami, mascarpone, Gorgonzola, and hake. So here’s the result (with stuff I had on hand added). I toasted slices from a granary loaf, and began with a layer of Belgian endive, then salami, then grilled fillet of hake, then mascarpone and Gorgonzola, with fresh arugula (roquette/rocket) on top. Here’s the sandwich in the making, and in the eating position.

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