Apr 092017
 

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, and the last Sunday in Lent. These days, ever since I left the U.S. and stopped preaching, Palm Sunday sometimes creeps up on me unawares.  Not this year, because I am paying attention, but in past years it has often caught me by surprise because I have been traveling for my birthday or the like. In 2012, for example, I was in Cusco for my birthday trip to Machu Picchu, and on the Sunday following I walked down to the center of town and came across dozens of women sitting in the street weaving crosses, crowns, and other decorations from palm fronds.  Everyone in town was carrying palms of some sort, and there was a generally festive atmosphere. At midday there was a gigantic parade of church and civic groups before the town’s dignitaries with hundreds of onlookers all around the main square and side roads.

The following year, again by surprise, I bumped into a local church procession in Buenos Aires near my apartment with congregants carrying olive branches and singing as they toured the block around the parish church. Palms are traditional in many countries because of the gospel narrative, but in quite a few places where palms were difficult to come by in the past, people carry, and wave, branches of olive, yew, box, willow, or other local native trees. Olive branches are standard in Rome and I believe that the custom was transferred to Argentina by Catholic monks from the Old World in colonial times even though palms are plentiful there. In fact in the gospels only John specifies palms. In the others they refer to “branches” and in Spanish this day is called domingo de ramos (Branch Sunday).

The narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before the Passover when he died is found in all the canonical gospels.  Here’s John (12:12-15):

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

The quotation at the end comes from Zechariah’s messianic prophecy (9:9), and the shouts of the people come from the Psalms (188:25-26), leading a great many Biblical historians to question the historicity of the event. Did this really happen or is this a wishful (theologically apt) construction of the gospel writers to make a point, underscoring their beliefs concerning the upcoming Easter events? Jesus proved himself to be the foretold Messiah, so he must have entered the city as a peaceful king as foretold by the prophets.

There’s a lot of ancient symbolism thrown together here and the gospels do not exactly agree on specifics. In some cases there is clear confusion. Matthew for example commands his disciples (21:2-3), 2Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” Later (21:7) the disciples lay their clothes on the donkey AND the colt and set Jesus on BOTH of them – seemingly. How they managed this is a miracle in its own right. How does one ride two animals simultaneously? What seems likely is that Matthew’s Hebrew was not up to snuff and he misread (or misunderstood) the original from Zechariah which reads:

See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey

The original Hebrew is poetry using the frequent Hebrew poetic device of duplication for emphasis. Zechariah is not saying that the king comes riding on a donkey AND a colt, but that the donkey in question is a colt, the offspring of a donkey. Duh !! The fact that the triumphal beast of burden is a donkey and not a horse is also significant. The horse as a king’s mount is a symbol of war; the donkey is a symbol of peace.

It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for people to spread clothes and branches in the path of a conquering hero. The specific identity of branches as palm fronds is unique to John. The palm was a very complex symbol in ancient times in both the Greco-Roman and Egyptian worlds which John was presumably familiar with. In the Roman Empire, which strongly influenced Christian tradition, the palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory. It became the most common attribute of the goddess Nike or Victory. For contemporary readers of John, the procession would likely have evoked the Roman triumph, when the triumphator laid down his arms and wore the toga, the civilian garment of peace that might be ornamented with emblems of the palm. In ancient Egyptian religion, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. The palm branch later was used as a symbol of Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death.

This juxtaposition of life, death, and triumph brings us back to the events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week which is a bittersweet moment in the Christian calendar observed by Catholics, Orthodox, and many mainstream Protestant denominations alike (even those that are not especially keen on Lent).  Holy Week is the climax of Jesus’ ministry when his role is made fully manifest. He preaches to huge crowds, performs miracles, and cleanses the Temple of moneychangers. He is both a hell raiser and pacifist bringing a new dispensation to the world. As such he is both praised and reviled: by the mob on the one hand, and by the Temple authorities on the other. The gospels cast the mob as terminally fickle, however. They are awed and excited by Jesus at the start of the week, and howling for his death by the end.

Jesus plays a cat and mouse game with the Temple authorities all week, openly preaching in the center of Jerusalem by day where he is kept safe by the crowds, but spiriting away in secret to the isolated suburbs at night where the authorities cannot find him until he is betrayed by one of his own. This is a teacher/preacher who has made a name for himself in the provinces but is now a grand celebrity in the capital and is making the most of it. Of course in Roman Imperial times this was an exceptionally dangerous game to play. The Romans were ever fearful of a Jewish uprising and there were many secret rebel groups bent on violent action. The Romans had no compunction in killing off ringleaders if they caught them. Scholars debate endlessly to this day as to whether it was the Romans or the Temple leaders who were responsible in actual historical fact for Jesus execution and I will have much more to say about this on Maundy Thursday. For now I will note that starting with the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday the gospel writers are setting the stage for a showdown between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and the Romans are very much in the background, seemingly innocent bystanders. I suspect that the Romans were taking much more notice than they are reported to have been.

My Lenten wreath today has only the central Christ candle lit as a stark reminder that while the world temporarily rejoices, the light of the world is moving on to face his death alone. Holy Week was a very lonely time for Jesus despite all the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem. I will extinguish the Christ candle on Good Friday.

Hearts of palm are the obvious ingredient of choice for today. Heart of palm is harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (notably the coconut (Cocos nucifera), Palmito Juçara (Euterpe edulis), Açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), sabal (Sabal spp.), pupunha and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) palms). Harvesting of many non-cultivated or wild single-stemmed palms results in the death of the tree (e.g. Geonoma edulis).  Some palm species, however, are clonal or multi-stemmed plants (e.g. Prestoea acuminata, Euterpe oleracea) and moderate harvesting will not kill the entire clonal palm.

An alternative to wild heart of palm are palm varieties which have been domesticated as farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is Bactris gasipaes, known in Ecuador as chontaduro, in Brazil and Costa Rica as palmito, and in English as the peach palm. This variety is the most widely used for canning. They are self-suckering and produce multiple stems, up to 40 on one plant, meaning that modest annual harvesting does no damage to the main plant. Another advantage that the peach palm has over other palms is that it has been selectively bred to eliminate the vicious thorns of its wild cousins. Harvesting is still a labor-intensive task, and thus palm hearts are regarded as a delicacy in many parts of the world. In the U.S. they are readily available canned and are not expensive. I always kept a can or two on hand when I lived in NY.

As is common, I used to use hearts of palm in salads, or on their own with a simple dressing. As a salad component the sliced hearts add some texture and flavor to a salad. They come packed in an acidulated liquid (typically ascorbic acid), so they can be a bit astringent. I used to like to drink the canning liquid but it may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a lot sweeter than pickle juices which I know some folks like. Salads made with all crispy components such as hearts of palm, green beans, and asparagus make a welcome change from their leafy brethren. As a simple side dish for the day – dripping with Holy Week symbolism – I suggest plain hearts of palm dressed with the flesh of passionfruit.

Hearts of palm can also be cooked. They can be plain grilled, or baked. In the latter case, slice them thickly then toss them with olive oil, finely diced garlic, chopped fresh parsley, and grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven until they are nicely golden.

Sep 162016
 

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The Xerox 914 was the first successful commercial plain paper copier which in 1959 revolutionized the document-copying industry. The copier was introduced to the public on this date in 1959, in a demonstration at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York, shown on live television. Not only did the 914 revolutionize copying, it also made the fortune of the Xerox corporation that had been struggling up to that point. For decades “Xerox” was synonymous with “photocopy” (to the chagrin of competitors), just as “Kleenex” was synonymous with “paper handkerchief” for a long time.

Xerography or electrophotography had been around for some time, as had been the original Xerox corporation. Xerox was founded in 1906 in Rochester, New York, as The Haloid Photographic Company, which originally manufactured photographic paper and equipment. The basic principal of xerography was proposed in the 1920s by Hungarian physicist and engineer Pál Selényi who published a number of papers on the theory of transmitting and printing facsimiles of printed images using a beam of charged ions directed on to a rotating drum of insulating material. The ions would create an electrostatic charge on the drum. A fine powder could then be dusted upon the drum and the powder would stick to the parts of the drum that were charged. Theory and practice are not the same.

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Chester Carlson was the man who turned the theory into practice. There is no question that Carlson was an inspired loony (my favorite kind of person). He wrote:

I had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don’t think I printed more than two issues, and they weren’t much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor’s notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time.

The need for a quick, satisfactory copying machine that could be used right in the office seemed very apparent to me—there seemed such a crying need for it—such a desirable thing if it could be obtained. So I set out to think of how one could be made.

Carlson bounced around a lot, but in the late 1920s wound up in the patent department of Bell Labs working for their patent attorney. The need for a quick and efficient method of making copies was obvious. Secretaries either used carbon paper or mimeograph machines. In both cases You had to retype your original before you could make copies. Wouldn’t it be grand if you could just stick your original in a machine and have it spit out copies?

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Carlson was fired from Bell in 1933 for running an illegal business outside of office hours. After that he started at law school but spent spare time at New York Public Library’s science and technology department. It was there that he was inspired by a brief article, written by Pál Selényi in an obscure German scientific journal, that showed him a way to construct a copier. Carlson’s early experiments, conducted in his apartment kitchen, were smoky, smelly, and occasionally explosive. In one set of experiments, he was melting pure crystalline sulfur (a photoconductor) on to a plate of zinc by moving it gently over the flame of his kitchen stove. This resulted in a sulfur fire, filling the building with the smell of rotten eggs (sulfur dioxide). This was not the only kitchen fire. By the autumn of 1938, Carlson’s wife had convinced him that his experiments needed to be conducted elsewhere. He rented a room on the second floor of a house owned by his mother-in-law at 32-05 37th Street in Astoria, Queens. He hired an assistant, Otto Kornei, an out-of-work Austrian physicist.

Carlson knew that several major corporations were researching ways of copying paper. The Haloid Company (Xerox) had the Photostat, which it licensed to Eastman Kodak, the photography giant. However, these companies were researching along photographic lines, and their solutions required special chemicals and papers. The Photostat, for instance, was essentially a photograph of the document being copied.

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Eventually Carlson applied for and was awarded U.S. Patent 2,297,691 on October 6, 1942. The technique was originally called electrophotography. It was later renamed xerography—from the Greek roots ξηρός xeros, “dry” and -γραφία -graphia, “writing”—to emphasize that, unlike reproduction techniques then in use such as cyanotype, this process used no liquid chemicals. Here’s his first successful photocopy:

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Carlson’s original process was cumbersome, requiring several manual processing steps with flat plates. It was almost 18 years before a fully automated process was developed, the key breakthrough being use of a cylindrical drum coated with selenium instead of a flat plate. Carlson entered into a research agreement with the Battelle Memorial Institute in 1944, when he and Kornei produced the first operable copy machine. He sold his rights in 1947 to the Haloid Company.

Haloid introduced the first commercial xerographic copier, the Xerox Model A, in 1949. The company had, the previous year, announced the refined development of xerography in collaboration with Battelle Their machine was generally known as the Ox Box. An improved version, Camera #1, was introduced in 1950. Haloid was renamed Haloid Xerox in 1958, and, in 1959 the 914 was introduced and became an instant success. The 914 was hailed as the critical breakthrough because it was relatively affordable and easy to use. Thus it caught on in offices throughout the world, launching Xerox as a major profitable company, having been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for decades.

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The 914 was so named because it could copy originals up to 9 inches by 14 inches (229 mm × 356 mm), and was capable of making 100,000 copies per month (seven copies per minute). The 914 was very useful, but not without its problems. For one thing the machine was mechanically complex. It required a large technical support force because it broke down all the time. Therefore, it was not practical for small offices, including those in schools, churches, and so forth. As a new school teacher in 1973 I was used mimeograph machines for large numbers of copies, and continued using them (and wet chemical copiers) into the late 1970s.

The 914 also had a tendency to catch fire when overheated (Ralph Nader claimed that a model in his office had caught fire three times in a four-month period). Because of the problem, the Xerox company provided a “scorch eliminator,” which was actually a small fire extinguisher, along with the copier. I once amused the office at my university when I was doing a large batch of copies on a 914, and one copy came out of the machine in flames. Despite its problems, the machine was regarded with affection by its technical staff, due to it being complex enough to be interesting to use, but without being so complex as to be beyond understanding. Regular office staff were usually not so forgiving. The pricing structure of the machine was designed to encourage customers to rent rather than buy – it could be rented in 1965 for $25 a month, but would cost $27,500 to buy. The 914 was a significant component of Xerox’s revenues in the mid-1960s, with one author estimating that the machine accounted for two thirds of the company’s revenue in 1965, with income generated of $243M.  The machine was produced between 1960 and 1977.

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With the growth of the company due to sales of the 914, Xerox labs was greatly expanded and was responsible for producing a raft of technologies, all of which it sold off to others, especially in the field of computing. Xerox invented many design elements to make personal computing more user friendly such as the Graphic User Interface, the desktop, and the mouse, which it sold to Apple, which, in turn, became a giant in the field – eventually emulated by Microsoft. Xerox also invented the prototype of the fax machine (two copiers connected by telephone lines), and the Ethernet. It was not that the business directors at Xerox failed to see the commercial potential of these products, rather that the company was not interested in diversifying into computing at that stage.

Xerox has production facilities in many locations, including its major factory in Rochester, New York, where the old Haloid Company was founded. But its world headquarters are located in Norwalk, Connecticut. Norwalk is not exactly a foodie paradise, but on the weekend after Labor Day it holds a major oyster festival. To honor Xerox and the inflammable 914, therefore, I thought I’d give you grilled oysters.

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To be honest, I’ll take a dozen (or two dozen) oysters on the half shell just about any day of the week before I’ll eat them cooked, but I’ve had them grilled in New Orleans and they made a change. The secret is to have a good smoky fire and a tight cover so that they smoke as they cook. You’ll also need to decide what seasonings you want to add.  There are abundant choices. Here’s the steps:

  1. Prepare your seasonings ahead of time. Herb butter is common. Pulse together in your food processor, cold salted butter, parsley, garlic, and lemon juice. For an Asian taste use hoisin sauce, fresh ginger, garlic, ricewine, and dark soy sauce. (This is my favorite). You can prepare your seasonings a day ahead.
  2. Prepare hot coals in your grill, and make them smoke with dampened wood placed on top once they are well hot and glowing.
  3. Scrub your oysters well, making sure they are tightly closed, or close when tapped. Remove any beards and loose material. Keep them in a bucket of cold salted water by the grill until it is ready.
  4. Place the oysters, curved side down on the grill and cover tightly.
  5. After a minute or two check under the cover. The oysters will start to open. As they do, using heavy, fire-proof gloves, take the oysters off the grill and remove the top shell. Add a spoonful of seasoning to each oyster, put them back on the grill and cover. Let them grill for another 2 minutes or so. You don’t want them overcooked because they will get tough. You just want the juices and seasonings to be bubbly.
  6. Serve straight from the grill piping hot, as is, or with a garden salad and crusty bread.

 

Jun 022016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, a Christian saint and martyr, who, according to Christian tradition, died c. 303. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. Not much is known about his life. The Acts of Saint Elmo were partly compiled from legends that confuse him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend credited him as a bishop at Formia over all the Italian Campania, as a hermit on Mount Lebanon, and a martyr in the persecutions under Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian.

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Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to pray to him. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire.”

I am interested in him because indirectly he gave his name and patronage to my barrio in Buenos Aires – San Telmo. It was known as San Pedro Heights during the 17th century, mostly home to the city’s growing contingent of dockworkers and brickmakers. The area became Buenos Aires’ first “industrial” area, home to its first windmill and most of the early city’s brick kilns and warehouses. The bulk of the city’s exports of wool, hides and leather (the Argentine region’s chief source of income as late as the 1870s) were prepared and stored here in colonial times. Their presence led to the first residential settlements in this area: that of Africans, slaves and free, alike.

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Previously separated from Buenos Aires proper by a ravine, the area was formally incorporated into the city in 1708 as the “Ovens and Storehouses of San Pedro.” The neighborhood’s poverty led the Jesuits to found a “Spiritual House” in the area, a charitable and educational mission referred to by San Pedro’s indigent as “the Residence.” The suppression of the Jesuits in 1767  led to the mission’s closure.

The void left by the Jesuits’ departure was addressed by the 1806 establishment of the Parish of San Pedro González Telmo (or “San Telmo”), named in honor Saint Elmo because he was the patron of sailors and the barrio was a vital port at the time. This move failed to replace the lost social institutions, however, and San Telmo languished well after Argentine independence in 1816. The Jesuit Residence, restored as a clinic by Guatemalan friars, was closed in 1821, and San Telmo saw no public works for the next 30 years except a Black Infantrymen’s Quarters and the construction of the infamous Mazorca Dungeon by Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas (now a grizzly museum which you can visit).

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San Telmo began to improve despite these challenges, particularly after Rosas’ removal from power in 1852. The establishment of new clinics, the installation of gas mains, lighting, sewers, running water and cobblestones and the opening of the city’s main wholesale market led to increasing interest in the area on the part of the well-to-do and numerous imposing homes were built in the western half of San Telmo. This promising era ended abruptly when an epidemic of yellow fever struck the area in 1871. The new clinics and the heroic efforts of physicians such as Florentino Ameghino helped curb the northward spread of the epidemic; but as time went on it claimed over 10,000 lives, and this led to the exodus of San Telmo’s growing middle and upper classes into what later became Barrio Norte.

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At first hundreds of properties became vacant. A few of the larger lots were converted into needed parks, the largest of which is Lezama Park, designed by the renowned French-Argentine urban planner Charles Thays in 1891 as a complement to the new Argentine National Museum of History. Most large homes, though, became tenement housing during the wave of immigration into Argentina from Europe (mostly Italy) between 1875 and 1930. San Telmo became the most multicultural neighborhood in Buenos Aires, home to large communities of British, Galician, Italian and Russian-Argentines. The large numbers of Russians in San Telmo and elsewhere in Buenos Aires led to the consecration of Argentina’s first Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Expanding industry to the south also led a German immigrant, Otto Krause, to open a technical school here in 1897.

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San Telmo’s bohemian air began attracting local artists after upwardly-mobile immigrants left the area. Increasing cultural activity resulted in the opening of the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art by critic Rafael Squirru in 1956, as well as in the 1960 advent of the “Republic of San Telmo,” an artisan guild which organized art walks and other events. San Telmo’s immigrant presence also led to quick popularization of tango in the area: long after that genre’s heyday, renowned vocalist Edmundo Rivero purchased an abandoned colonial-era grocery in 1969, christening it El Viejo Almacén (“The Old Grocery Store”). This soon became one of the city’s best-known tango music halls, helping lead to a cultural and economic revival in San Telmo.

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The 1980 restoration of the former Ezeiza family mansion into the Pasaje de la Defensa (“Defensa Street Promenade”), moreover, has led to the refurbishment of numerous such structures, many of which had been conventillos (tenements) since the 1870s. As most of San Telmo’s 19th century architecture and cobblestone streets remain, it has also become an important tourist attraction especially on Sundays when there is a gigantic flea market in the center along with street music and dancing (and when I stay home !!).

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Grilled Provoleta is a local specialty in san Telmo. Provoleta is a trademark, and common name, for an Argentine variant of provolone cheese described as “Argentine pulled-curd Provolone cheese.” It is eaten barbecued throughout Argentina and less commonly in Uruguay. The cheese was developed by Natalio Alba in about 1940, and the PROVOLETA trademark was established in 1963. The cheese is produced with a pulled-curd (pasta filata) technique.

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Small discs of Provoleta of 10 to 15 cm in diameter and 1 to 2 cm in height are often eaten at the start of an asado, before the grilled meat. The Provoleta, usually topped with oil, chile, tomatoes, and oregano, is placed directly on the grill, on small stones, or inside a foil plate, and cooked until part-melted. The Provoleta may be seasoned with chimichurri (see here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-left-handers-day/ ), and is usually eaten communally with bread.

There’s no real substitute for San Telmo fire-grilled Provoleta, but you can make a kind of replica by taking a disk of provolone, placing it on a well-heated, greased cast-iron skillet, crisping the bottom, then running it under a broiler until darkened on top. Drizzle olive oil over the top and sprinkle with crushed red chiles and oregano, or chimichurri, and eat straight from the pan by dipping in crusty bread.