May 152017
 

Today, the Ides of May, was the Mercuralia (Festival of Mercury) in ancient Rome. Before talking about Mercury let’s talk a little about the Roman calendar first, since it formed the basis of the calendar commonly in use throughout the West. The calendar purported to have been created by the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, had 10 months of either 31 days (full months) or 30 days (hollow months). The year began in March and ended in December, with roughly 51 days added in winter before March to keep the calendar in line with the sun. Those of you who know your Latin roots know that /septe/ /octo/ /noven/ and /decem/ are seven, eight, nine, and ten respectively. What day of the month it was, was expressed by counting forward to key points in the month: kalends, nones, and ides. The kalends was the first of the month (and gives us the word “calendar”), the ides were the 15th in full months and the 13th in hollow months, and the nones were one week before the ides. The Roman week was 8 days long, but a week was counted as nine days (nones) inclusively. May was a full month so the Ides were the 15th. In case you are wondering, January, February were added in when reforms were made by Julius Caesar and Augustus who gave their names to what were formerly simply called fifth and sixth months.

Mercury was the Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes, but there are some legendary tales extant regarding Mercury that are clearly distinct from Greek ones and in line with ancient Roman beliefs. He was the god in charge of (variously) trade, thieves, eloquence, messages, luck, and travel. His name, by folk etymology, was related to “merx” (merchandise), “mercari” (trade), and “merces” (wages).  The Ides of May was designated as his birthday from pre-Republican times, the Mercuralia, and on this day the merchants of Rome used laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers!

Mercury was not one of the most ancient of the Roman gods but he did have a temple in Rome situated in the Circus Maximus, between the Aventine and Palatine hills. It was built in 495 BCE and dedicated on the Ides of May. That year saw conflicts in Rome between the patrician senators and the plebeians, which led to a secession of the plebs in the following year. At the completion of the temple’s construction, a dispute emerged between the consuls Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis and Publius Servilius Priscus Structus as to which of them should have the honor of dedicating the temple. The senate referred the decision to the popular assembly, and also decreed that whichever was chosen should also exercise additional duties, including presiding over the markets, establishing a merchants’ guild, and exercising the functions of the pontifex maximus. The people, because of the ongoing public discord, and in order to spite the senate and the consuls, instead awarded the honor of dedicating the temple to the senior military officer of one of the legions, Marcus Laetorius. The senate and the consuls, in particular the conservative Appius, were outraged at this decision, and it inflamed the ongoing situation leading to the famous secession of the plebeians the following year.

The temple was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. Because it stood between the plebeian stronghold on the Aventine and the patrician center on the Palatine, it also emphasized the role of Mercury as a mediator. Following Greek legends of Hermes, Mercury was associated with leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. So, Mercury’s roles as mediator, messenger, and merchant are all intertwined.

Because of Mercury’s common roles he was easily syncretized with various indigenous gods throughout the Western Roman empire, taking on their local attributes and worship in different parts of Gaul and Britain. He also gave his name to a wandering star (planet), and hence one of the names of a weekday in Romance languages (Wednesday), which are mostly named for bodies in the solar system (as opposed to English which uses Norse gods primarily).  To this day Mercury is a symbol of speed, especially in delivering messages.

Romans offered a great many things to Mercury to procure favors especially in trade and business, including cinnamon, honey, lambs, and goats. I make braised lamb shanks quite often, sometimes with a resultant honey glaze/sauce. Cinnamon and honey are a natural pairing, so here’s my recipe for honey and cinnamon braised lamb shanks in honor of Mercury. You could use goat pieces instead if you like. This should be an Old World only recipe – no potatoes, for example. You could serve the shanks with noodles if you believe, as I do, that the Romans made pasta long before Marco Polo visited China.

©Honey and Cinnamon Braised Lamb Shanks

Ingredients

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp honey
1 pint beef stock
1 pint chicken stock

Instructions

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the lamb shanks and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add the garlic towards the end, but do not let it brown.

Cover the shanks with beef and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add the honey and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook, uncovered, on a very slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is falling from the bones and the braising sauce is thick and syrupy. You can do this step in the oven if you like at 325˚F.  If the sauce is not reduced enough, remove the shanks, turn up the heat to high and cook quickly until it is sufficiently reduced. Roll the shanks in the sauce to cover thoroughly and serve with Old World root vegetables.

Serves 4

Oct 042016
 

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The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).

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The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.

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Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).

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Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

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I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.

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Keftedes de Prasa

Ingredients

2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
salt
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying

Instructions

Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.

May 312013
 
John Harvey Kellogg

John Harvey Kellogg

W. K. Kellogg

W. K. Kellogg

KelloggsCornFlakesAdvertizement1910s

On this date in 1895 John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother William Keith Kellogg  (normally called “W. K.”) filed an application for a patent for “Flaked Cereals and Process of Preparing Same.”  At the time both brothers worked for the Seventh Day Adventist owned Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, John Harvey as chief medical officer, and W.K. as business manager.  Both were Adventists, although in mid-life John Harvey broke with the church because his beliefs seemed too pantheistic for orthodox Adventists.  For example, in 1901 at an Adventist conference he said:

“Take the sunflower, for example. It looks straight at the sun. It watches and follows the sun all day long, looking straight at it all the time; and as the sun dips down below the horizon, you see that sunflower still looking at it; and as the sun turns around and comes up in the morning, the flower is looking toward the sun rising. It is God in the sunflower that makes it do this.”

Nonetheless John Harvey was a close adherent to many of the health principles of the Adventist church, and was a strong advocate of their belief in the benefits of vegetarianism and the abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, coupled with a vigorous exercise regime. He also believed that most diseases were caused by poor intestinal health and an excess of passion (inflamed by meat among other things). His treatments for the restoration of healthy intestinal flora and flaming passion I will pass over.  You can probably guess, but if you really want to know, I recommend the movie The Road to Wellville starring Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg.    The diet at the sanitarium created by John Harvey was bland, following the principles of Sylvester Graham, inventor of Graham crackers. Sweet, spicy foods, he believed, excited the passions, and this belief eventually was the basis of a lifelong rift with his brother.

The idea for corn flakes began by accident when John Harvey and W.K, left some cooked wheat to sit while they attended to some pressing matters at the sanitarium. When they returned, they found that the wheat had gone stale, but being on a strict budget, they decided to continue to process it by forcing it through rollers, hoping to obtain long sheets of dough. To their surprise, what they found instead were flakes, which they toasted and served to their patients. The flakes of grain, which the Kelloggs called granose, proved to be very popular, so the brothers experimented with other grains, including corn/maize. According to Kellogg’s official website it was W.K. who perfected the process of flaking corn (hence, for the apostrophe pedant, they are Kellogg’s Corn Flakes®, and not Kelloggs’).

Because of the commercial potential of the discovery, W.K. wanted it kept a secret. John Harvey, however, allowed anyone in the sanitarium to observe the flaking process, and one sanitarium guest, C.W. Post, copied it to start his own company. The company became Post Cereals, and later, General Foods, the source of Post’s first million dollars. This upset W.K. to the extent that he left the sanitarium in 1906 to create his own company, Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (later the Kellogg Company). He added sugar to the flakes to make them more palatable to a mass audience, but this caused a rift between him and John Harvey who opposed dietary sugar on principle. Corn flakes, and other cereals, were an enormous success and the company made millions. W.K. went on to become a fabulously wealthy man (and famed philanthropist), while John Harvey lived out the rest of his life as a modest doctor. The two men never reconciled, although John Harvey wrote a letter to his brother not long before his death seeking to reopen a relationship.  However, his secretary, believing that the letter was too demeaning, did not send it. W.K. did not see it until after his brother’s death.  Both men died at the ripe old age of 91.

I ate corn flakes as a boy quite regularly for breakfast until my mid-teens when I started to prefer cooked foods. I do not believe I have eaten corn flakes as a breakfast cereal since I was 15.  However, I have always been a fan of treats made from corn flakes with chocolate or honey – favorites at picnics and church suppers when I was a boy in Australia. Under my mother’s supervision I first made Honeyed Corn Flakes when I was around 10.  They are incredibly simple and quick to prepare (an excellent way to start a boy or girl on the road to a lifetime of passion for cooking). If these do not suit your adult tastes try tossing cornflakes in tempered dark chocolate, spooning the mix into clumps, then briefly refrigerating them until set. Yum! You could store them in airtight containers but mine never get that far.

Honeyed Corn Flakes

Ingredients:

4 cups corn flakes
3 oz (90 g) butter
2 ½ oz (72 g) sugar
1 tbsp honey

Instructions:

Preheat your oven to 300° F (150° C).

Spread the cornflakes evenly on a parchment or foil lined baking sheet.

Melt the butter over low heat, add the sugar and honey, and continue to heat until the mixture froths.

Pour the mixture evenly over the cornflakes and toss until the cornflakes are evenly coated.

Place 12 large foil cupcake cups on a separate baking tray and spoon the coated corn flakes into the cups

Put the tray in the preheated oven for about 12 minutes or until the cornflakes are golden.

Leave the cupcakes to cool and harden.  Store in an airtight container.

Yield: 12