Jan 182018

Today is the birthday (1779) of Peter Mark Roget FRS, noted popularly for the creation of the first thesaurus, but who spent most of his life as a physician, and published works in medicine and natural theology before he became a lexicographer. Roget was born in London. His obsession with list-making was well established by the time he was 8 years old. Roget was the son of a Swiss clergyman, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his degree in 1798. His life was marked by several depressing incidents. His father and his wife died young, and his favorite maternal uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly, committed suicide in his presence. Romilly was distraught at the death of his wife, and in a fit of delirium he sprang from his bed and slashed his throat with a straight razor. Roget was powerless to save him. Subsequently, Roget struggled with depression for most of his life, presumably resulting from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and his work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle his depression.

Roget retired from professional life in 1840, and in about 1848 began preparing for publication the work that was to perpetuate his memory. For some reason he decided to build a catalogue of words organized by their meanings, starting in 1805. This was apparently an avocation bordering on obsession. I know how that goes. Its first printed edition, in 1852, was called Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. During his lifetime the work had 28 printings. After his death it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget (1828–1908), and later by John’s son, Samuel Romilly Roget (1875–1952).

Roget was greatly concerned with medical education, but the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester was not established until 1874. He was also one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine, and he was a secretary of the Royal Society. In 1815, he invented the log-log slide rule, allowing a person to perform exponential and root calculations simply. This was especially helpful for calculations involving fractional powers and roots. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, and he was examiner in physiology in the University of London.

On 9 December 1824, Roget presented a paper entitled “Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures.” This article is often incorrectly referenced as either “On the Persistence of Vision with Regard to Human Motion” or “Persistence of Vision with regard to Moving Objects,” likely due to erroneous citations by film historians Terry Ramsaye and Arthur Knight. While Roget’s explanation of the illusion was probably wrong, his consideration of the illusion of motion is seen as an important point in the history of film, and possibly influenced the development of the Thaumatrope, the Phenakistiscope, and the Zoetrope.

He wrote numerous papers on physiology and health, among them the fifth Bridgewater Treatise, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology (1834), a two-volume work on phrenology (1838), and articles for several editions of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Roget also played a role in the establishment of the University of London. He was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and wrote a series of popular manuals for it. He showed remarkable ingenuity in inventing and solving chess problems and designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard.

Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire, aged 90, and is buried there in the cemetery of St James’s Church.

The word “thesaurus” in English originally meant a “treasure” or “storehouse,” but now it means a dictionary of synonyms due to Roget’s use of the word for his book. It can also be used figuratively as in a Cook’s Thesaurus where “synonyms” means “substitute ingredients.” Just as you can use “tome” or “volume” in place of “book” (under the right conditions), you can substitute spinach for cabbage (also under the right conditions). I have found this online cook’s thesaurus quite useful on occasion: http://www.foodsubs.com/ . As the URL suggests, the site is about finding substitutes for ingredients in recipes, and here I am of two minds. If I am making a gravy using Worcestershire sauce and I am out of it, I can’t make the gravy. There is no substitute for Worcestershire sauce. A cook’s thesaurus will tell me to substitute soy sauce, and I am sure the resulting gravy will be good, but it’s not what I want. I put cilantro in my guacamole, but if I don’t have cilantro, I can use parsley, but it will not be the same. I can also use lemon juice instead of lime juice. It will prevent the avocado from turning brown and will give a citrus tang, but it will not be the same. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am adamant about using indigenous ingredients wherever I am in the world. In Myanmar they use an aquatic species in the convolvulus genus, related to morning glory, called rwat, in many dishes. In English they call it watercress, but it is nothing like European watercress. Trying to make these dishes without rwat is a waste of time.

All that said, there can be a great deal of creativity in changing one ingredient for another if you are not trying to make a dish in a particularly authentic or local way. A few posts ago I talked about taking the basic recipe for eggs Benedict and changing out one of the ingredients:  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benedict-arnold/  Now we are in vastly different territory. Substituting for the sake of novelty or creativity is a completely different ball game, and I’m down with it. A thesaurus for cooks is not the only tool in the box, but it’s a good start. Flour is an excellent place to start. There are many different types of wheat flour and replacing one with another can be great or can be dangerous. I’m talking about replacing wheat flour with flour from another grain, or even a non-grain. Here you do have to be very careful because things can go horribly wrong. But you can try barley flour or oat flour in bread, for example. Or you can be even more adventurous and use almond flour instead of wheat flour in cakes or pancakes. It’s not a bad idea to substitute half and half (half wheat flour, half other flour) first, to see how it goes. Here’s a recipe for almond flour brownies. It’s not just good for people with wheat allergies; it is delicious. The quality of the cocoa powder you use is very important; also the almond flour. I generally make my own, but it is easy to find in health food stores or online.

Almond Flour Brownies


5 tbsp butter, melted

1 ¾ cups sugar

½ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

¾ cup cocoa powder

3 large eggs

1 ½ cups almond flour

1 tsp baking powder

butter for greasing


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Use butter to grease an 8″ square pan that is at least 2″ deep.

Stir together the melted butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, cocoa, and eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir in the almond flour and baking powder, and mix well so that there are no dry pockets, but do not beat vigorously.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, using a spatula to make sure that it is spread evenly in the pan and the top is flat and smooth.

Bake the brownies for about 35 minutes. The top should be set, and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. It is all right if the toothpick is a little moist or if there is a speck of chocolate at the edge.

Let the brownies cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then cut them into squares and serve immediately. If you are not ready to serve them straightaway, store them in an airtight tin at room temperature. They also freeze well.

Jan 102018

Today is known as Traditional Day or Fête du Vodoun, a public holiday in Benin that celebrates the nation’s heritage particularly as it relates to the West African practice of vodun. The celebration is held annually on January 10 throughout the country but most notably in the city of Ouidah on the coast. Vodun was officially declared a religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists to Ouidah to participate in the festivities ever since. During Matthew Kerekou’s Marxist/military rule of 18 years which ended in 1991, vodun was suppressed and outlawed in the country. With the exit of Kerekou from power, the practice began to thrive freely again. Following his return to power as a democratic elected president in 1996, Kerekou capitulated to the people’s wish when taking his oath of office by acknowledging the existence of ancestral spirits, and the government declared January 10th as public holiday.

You will read various statistics about the popularity of Vodun. Some observers claim that as much as 60% of the population of Benin practice Vodun, but according to the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin declared themselves as Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% as Muslim, and 17.3% as practitioners of Vodun (the rest following various other indigenous religions or having no religious affiliation). I’m not sure that I can say a whole lot about vodun that will be terribly accurate because I’ve never been to West Africa nor studied the local spiritual practices particularly closely, but I’ll do my best. The one thing I can say with no fear of contradiction is that Vodun is grossly misunderstood by outsiders.

Vodun (meaning “spirit” in both Fon and Ewe languages, also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) is practiced by the Ewe people of eastern and southern Ghana, and southern and central Togo,the Kabye people, Gen-speaking people, and Fon people of southern and central Togo, and southern and central Benin. It is also practiced by some Gun people of Lagos and Ogun in southwest Nigeria. All these peoples belong to Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, except the Kabye. Vodun is distinct from the various traditional African religions in the interiors of these countries and is one source of religions with similar names found among the African diaspora in the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou; Dominican Vudú; Cuban Vodú; Brazilian Vodum; and Louisiana Voodoo. I use the word “voodoo” in my title here, because it is one spelling of the Fon word that is pronounced /vodṹ/  (in IPA transliteration), and because it is more familiar to most Westerners than Vodun. However, it is very important not to confuse Vodun with popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of Voodoo.

Anthropologists class Vodun as a form of magic (differentiating it from religion). This is a technical distinction that causes anthropologists to argue endlessly, and froth at the mouth a lot, so I’ll keep it simple (which probably is a synonym in this case for “wrong” or “misguided”). Anthropologists, going back to James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, have tried to separate supernatural practices into magic and religion, but the differences are not really hard and fast. Ideally, magic takes as a basic assumption that the world is divided into physical and spiritual forces that are deeply entwined, such that everything affects everything. The art to being a good magical practitioner is knowing the rules that govern how actions in one place have results in another place. In some ways magic is akin to physical science, which also believes that everything is connected to everything else. For example, Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation (which got superseded by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity), states that EVERYTHING attracts EVERYTHING else in the universe (with a force proportional to their masses, divided by the square of their distance apart). This law applies to planets, stars, galaxies, and sub-atomic particles. In principle, therefore, I exert a force on you, and you exert a force on me. When I see you (in person), light from your body enters my eye and becomes part of my body. Everything influences everything. Magic differs from science in that it posits a spirit world that is also connected to the physical world, whereas science does not. What differentiates magic (and science) from religion, is that magic (and science) works regardless of the intentions of the practitioner, whereas in religious systems, intention is everything. Break a mirror and you get 7 years of bad luck whether you intended to break it or not. That’s magic. If you want to undo the bad luck you must know the magical rules concerned with mirrors, and perform the necessary magic to make things right again.  In a religious system you undo bad fortune through prayer, and your prayer may be granted, but only if you pray with a good heart. Pray with bad intentions and the supernatural world will ignore you, or maybe even do you more harm.

Of course, magic and religion cannot be separated so easily in this way. The big push that led to the Protestant Reformation was the belief, on the part of the likes of Luther and Calvin, that magic had heavily infiltrated Catholicism and perverted it away from “true” religion. Candles, incense, bells, relics, etc. etc., were seen as magical nonsense by the Reformers. Even with the best will in the world, you don’t get rid of magic that easily. Professional baseball players on a long hitting streak may keep doing certain things repeatedly (even ritually) – eating the same breakfast before games, driving the same route to the baseball stadium, for example – even though they have no obvious connexion to the hitting streak. Magic can be reassuring in that way. Why jinx a good thing?

Vodun cosmology centers on the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, ethnic group, or nation. The vodun are the center of ritual life, and in some ways appear similar to doctrines such as the intercession of saints and angels within Catholicism that ultimately produced syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou. Adherents of vodun also emphasize respect for ancestors, and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

Patterns of vodun practice differ considerably within West Africa, and even within Benin. In many traditions, a divine creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being who bore seven children and gave each rule over a realm of nature, such as, animals, earth, sea, and so forth. In other traditions, the universe has both female and male aspects, often portrayed as the twin children of the creator, represented cosmologically by the moon (female) and the sun (masculine). Dan, who is the creator’s androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and as a go-between between the female and male, and between the supernatural and natural. As the overall mediator between the spirits and the living, Dan maintains balance, order, peace, harmony and communication. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine.

Because all physical objects contain divine power, even mundane items can have spiritual efficacy. Herbs can cure illnesses, not because of their physical properties but because of their divine nature. Even ordinary, everyday objects can be used in ritual because of their inherent spiritual force. Vodun talismans, called “fetishes” in English, are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold because of their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Drumming, dancing, singing; the ritual slaughter of goats and chickens; and drinking copious amounts of homemade gin, are all intrinsic parts of festivities in Benin on this date.

A very common street food (as well as home food) for festivals throughout Benin is Atassi or Waakye, which closely resembles beans and rice dishes found throughout Europe and the Americas. The dish is popular during Fête du Vodoun because the two complementary ingredients represent the duality central to vodun, and the dish itself is especially sacred to twins who are held in high honor in many West African cultures because of their resonance with the primordial twins of the creator. Beans and rice are called waakye in Benin because “waakye” is the local Fon word for sorghum, sometimes millet, leaves added to the cooking water to produce a distinctive brown color and subtle flavoring. You do not really need a recipe if you have any experience with beans and rice, especially because the Benin version is very plain.  Here’s a video for you.

Aug 272017

Today is the birthday (854 CE) of Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (ابوبكر محمّد زکرياى رازى) usually known in the West by his Latinized name Razi (also Rhazes or Rasis), a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist, and philosopher who was a key figure in the history of medicine – now mostly forgotten by the history books, as are scores of classical Muslim scholars. To acknowledge them too much would be to dent the fable of the West climbing to dominance all by itself (and with almost no recognition that Muslim scholars preserved the writings of the likes of Plato and Aristotle when the West had no use for them).

Razi made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, which he recorded in over 200 manuscripts, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries. He was an early proponent of experimental medicine, became a successful doctor, and served as chief physician of Baghdad and Ray hospitals. As a teacher of medicine, he attracted students of all backgrounds and interests and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor. Through translation, his medical works and ideas became known among medieval European practitioners and profoundly influenced medical education in the Latin West.

Razi was born in the city of Ray (modern Rey) situated on the Great Silk Road that for centuries facilitated trade and cultural exchanges between East and West. His nisba (locational surname, like “da Vinci”), Râzī (رازی), means “from the city of Ray” in Persian. It is located on the southern slopes of the Alborz mountain range near Tehran.

In his youth, Razi moved to Baghdad where he studied and practiced at the local bimaristan (hospital). Later, he was invited back to Rey by Mansur ibn Ishaq, then the governor of Rey, and became a bimaristan’s head. He dedicated two books on medicine to Mansur ibn Ishaq, The Spiritual Physic and Al-Mansūrī on Medicine. Because of his newly acquired popularity as physician, Razi was invited to Baghdad where he assumed the responsibilities of a director in a new hospital named after its founder al-Muʿtaḍid (d. 902 CE). Under the reign of Al-Mutadid’s son, Al-Muktafi (r. 902-908) Razi was commissioned to build a new hospital, which would be the largest of the Abbasid Caliphate. To pick the future hospital’s location, Razi adopted what is nowadays known as an evidence-based approach — having fresh meat hung in various places throughout the city and to build the hospital where meat took longest to rot.

He spent the last years of his life in his native Rey suffering from glaucoma. His eye affliction started with cataracts and ended in total blindness. The cause of his blindness is uncertain. One account mentioned by Ibn Juljul attributed the cause to a blow to his head by his patron, Mansur ibn Ishaq, for failing to provide proof for his alchemical theories; while Abulfaraj and Casiri claimed that the cause was a diet of beans only. Allegedly, he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Razi then asked him how many layers the eye contained and when he was unable to receive an answer, he declined the treatment saying “my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy”.

Razi’s lectures attracted many students. He was considered a shaikh, an honorary title given to one entitled to teach and be surrounded by several circles of students. When someone raised a question, it was passed on to students of the ‘first circle’; if they did not know the answer, it was passed on to those of the ‘second circle’, and so on. If all students failed to answer, Razi himself would consider the question. Razi was a generous person by nature, with a considerate attitude towards his patients. He was charitable to the poor, treated them without payment in any form. One former pupil from Tabaristan came to look after him, but as al-Biruni wrote, Razi rewarded him for his intentions and sent him back home, proclaiming that his final days were approaching. According to Biruni, Razi died in Rey in 925 at 60 years of age. Biruni, who considered Razi as his mentor, wrote a short biography of Razi including a bibliography of his numerous works. (also see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/al-biruni/ )

After his death, his fame spread beyond the Middle East to Medieval Europe, and lived on. In an undated catalog of the library at Peterborough Abbey, most likely from the 14th century, Razi is listed as a part author of ten books on medicine.

If you are interested in Razi you’ll have to look up his works.  There are plenty of resources online.  This would be a good place to start: http://www.thelivingmoon.com/44cosmic_wisdom/02files/Muhammad_ibn_Zakariya_al-Razi.html   Razi wrote way too much for me to summarize even in the most superficial way. It would take pages for me simply to list his major writings. All I can do is point you in the right direction.  The two most obvious qualities about Razi that are admirable are, first, that he did not rely slavishly on ancient authorities, such as Hippocrates, Galen or Aristotle, but read them critically and wrote about their errors as well as their good qualities; and, second, that he was a very keen observer, making extensive and detailed notes on diseases, chemicals, and the like. These qualities made him a first-rate experimental scientist in many spheres.

As an example, Razi’s book al-Judari wa al-Hasbah (On Smallpox and Measles) was the first book describing smallpox and measles as distinct diseases. It was translated more than a dozen times into Latin and other European languages. Its lack of dogmatism and its reliance on clinical observation show Razi’s medical methods. A small passage:

The eruption of smallpox is preceded by a continued fever, pain in the back, itching in the nose and nightmares during sleep. These are the more acute symptoms of its approach together with a noticeable pain in the back accompanied by fever and an itching felt by the patient all over his body. A swelling of the face appears, which comes and goes, and one notices an overall inflammatory color noticeable as a strong redness on both cheeks and around both eyes. One experiences a heaviness of the whole body and great restlessness, which expresses itself as a lot of stretching and yawning. There is a pain in the throat and chest and one finds it difficult to breathe and cough. Additional symptoms are: dryness of breath, thick spittle, hoarseness of the voice, pain and heaviness of the head, restlessness, nausea and anxiety. Note the difference: restlessness, nausea and anxiety occur more frequently with measles than with smallpox. On the other hand, pain in the back is more apparent with smallpox than with measles. Altogether one experiences heat over the whole body, one has an inflamed colon and one shows an overall shining redness, with a very pronounced redness of the gums.

Razi contributed in many ways to the early practice of pharmacy by compiling texts, in which he introduces the use of “mercurial ointments” and his development of apparatus such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials, which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century.

On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums and “cures”. At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease. To become more useful in their services and truer to their calling, Razi advised practitioners to keep up with advanced knowledge by continually studying medical books and constantly seeking new information. He made a distinction between curable and incurable diseases. Pertaining to the latter, he commented that in the case of advanced cases of cancer and leprosy the physician should not be blamed when he could not cure them. Razi also remarked that he felt great pity for physicians who took care of princes and nobles because they did not obey the doctor’s orders to restrict their diet or get medical treatment, thus making it difficult to be their physician.

Razi also wrote a medical text for the general public: For One Who Has No Physician to Attend Him (Man la Yahduruhu Al-Tabib) (من لا يحضره الطبيب). Razi was possibly the first Persian doctor to write a home medical manual. He dedicated it to the poor, the traveler, and the ordinary citizen who could consult it for treatment of common ailments when a doctor was not available. Some of the illnesses treated were headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach.

Razi’s interest in alchemy and his strong belief in the possibility of transmutation of lesser metals to silver and gold was attested half a century after his death by Ibn an-Nadim’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Nadim attributed a series of 12 books to Razi, plus an additional 7, including his refutation of al-Kindi’s denial of the validity of alchemy. Al-Kindi (801–873 CE) had been appointed by the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mum founder of Baghdad, to ‘the House of Wisdom’ in that city. He was a philosopher and an opponent of alchemy. Razi’s two best-known alchemical texts, al-Asrar (الاسرار “The Secrets”), and Sirr al-Asrar (سر الاسرار “The Secret of Secrets”), incorporate his major work in the field.

Apparently Razi’s contemporaries believed that he had obtained the secret of turning iron and copper into gold. Biographer Khosro Moetazed reports in Mohammad Zakaria Razi that a certain General Simjur confronted Razi in public, and asked whether that was the underlying reason for his willingness to treat patients without a fee. “It appeared to those present that Razi was reluctant to answer; he looked sideways at the general and replied:

I understand alchemy and I have been working on the characteristic properties of metals for an extended time. However, it still has not turned out to be evident to me how one can transmute gold from copper. Despite the research from the ancient scientists done over the past centuries, there has been no answer. I very much doubt if it is possible.

Razi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day. He is known to have perfected methods of the distillation of alcohol (which the Arabs used for perfume making, not for drinking). Razi dismissed magic as useless, but he did not reject the idea that miracles were possible (in the sense that some phenomena could not be explained by natural science). He also rejected the idea of four elements – earth, water, fire, and air – as explanations for the physical properties of materials.

Razi’s works present the first systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in a language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity. By modern standards Razi’s taxonomy of matter is a bit strange, but he was attempting to develop a rational, rather than mystical, natural science. Whether or not we should thank him for this is another matter entirely. He did have a metaphysical doctrine, however. Razi’s theory of the “five eternals” suggests that the world is produced out of an interaction between God and four other eternal principles (soul, matter, time, and place).

Toward the end of his life he wrote:

In short, while I am writing the present book, I have written so far around 200 books and articles on different aspects of science, philosophy, theology, and hekmat (wisdom). I never entered the service of any king as a military man or a man of office, and if I ever did have a conversation with a king, it never went beyond my medical responsibility and advice. Those who have seen me know, that I did not into excess with eating, drinking or acting the wrong way. As to my interest in science, people know perfectly well and must have witnessed how I have devoted all my life to science since my youth. My patience and diligence in the pursuit of science has been such that on one special issue specifically I have written 20,000 pages (in small print), moreover I spent fifteen years of my life -night and day- writing the big collection entitled Al Hawi. It was during this time that I lost my eyesight, my hand became paralyzed, with the result that I am now deprived of reading and writing. Nonetheless, I’ve never given up, but kept on reading and writing with the help of others. I could make concessions with my opponents and admit some shortcomings, but I am most curious what they have to say about my scientific achievement. If they consider my approach incorrect, they could present their views and state their points clearly, so that I may study them, and if I determined their views to be right, I would admit it. However, if I disagreed, I would discuss the matter to prove my standpoint. If this is not the case, and they merely disagree with my approach and way of life, I would appreciate they only use my written knowledge and stop interfering with my behavior.

A little over a thousand years ago, an Arab scribe, Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar, wrote Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). It was a collection of recipes from the court of 9th-century Baghdad, produced for the scribe’s unnamed patron—probably Saif al-Dawlah Al-Hamdani,  prince of 10th-century Aleppo— who asked him for the recipes of “kings and caliphs and lords and leaders.” The book is extant in three manuscripts and fragments of a fourth. These are the dishes actually eaten by the elite of Baghdad when it was the richest city in the world. There are recipes from the personal collections of every caliph from al-Mahdi (d.785) to al-Mutawakkil (d.861), including 20 from Harun al-Rashid’s son al-Ma’mun. 35 of the recipes—nearly one-tenth of the non-medicinal dishes in the book—come from Harun’s brother, the famous poet and gourmet Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. This was a golden age of medieval Persian cookery. The centerpiece of 9th-century Baghdadi cuisine was rich and complex stews, often cooked in the tandoor oven, which are prominent in the collection. But there are smaller dishes too.  This is a modern interpretation of a recipe for an appetizer, bazmaawurd: chicken and flavorings rolled in flatbread and baked. Bazmaawurd a traditional first course at a banquet in Abbasid Baghdad. The name comes from the Persian bazm, “banquet,” and awurd, “bringing.” The recipe given here is from the collection of the Caliph al-Ma’mun. It calls for the flesh of citron, but fresh citrons are hard to come by in the West, and there is little flesh anyway. They are grown for their peels mostly. Lemon can substitute.



1 fresh thin flour flatbread about 12″ diameter
1 whole chicken breast, boned, roasted, and chopped
2 tbspn chopped walnuts
flesh of 3-4 citrons, chopped
1 tbspn chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbspn chopped mint
2 tbspn chopped basil


Preheat the oven to 300˚F/150˚C

Place the flatbread on a lightly greased baking sheet. Spread the chicken evenly over the bread. Sprinkle with citron, walnuts, tarragon, mint and basil. Roll up the bread, and warm in the oven for about 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, cut into 4 pieces and serve immediately.

Nov 112016


Today is possibly the birthday in 1493 (or possibly 17th December) of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known to history as Paracelsus, a Swiss German philosopher, physician, botanist, astrologer, and general occultist. He is credited with a lot of things that he probably does not deserve, such as being the founder of toxicology. He is usually fairly credited with giving zinc its name, calling it zincum. Paracelsus’ most important legacy is undoubtedly his critique of scholasticism in medicine, science, and theology – the idea that all previously acknowledged authorities must be revered and built upon rather than challenged. Paracelsus was quite happy to discard texts he deemed worthless – pure heresy in his time. Most of his theoretical work does not withstand modern scientific scrutiny, but his general insights helped revolutionize scientific methods over time.

Paracelsus was born and raised in the village of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, was a Swabian (German) chemist and physician. His mother was Swiss and probably a bondswoman of the abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland where he was born. She is believed to have died in his childhood. In 1502 the family moved to Villach in Carinthia where Paracelsus’ father worked as a physician, attending to the medical needs of the pilgrims and inhabitants of the cloister.

Paracelsus was educated by his father in botany, medicine, mineralogy, mining, and natural philosophy. He also received a humanistic and theological education from local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.


He was employed as a military surgeon in the Venetian service in 1522. Paracelsus appears to have been very well traveled, so it is probable that he was involved in the many wars waged between 1517 and 1524 in Holland, Scandinavia, Prussia, Tartary, the countries under Venetian influence, and possibly the near East. His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia.

Paracelsus was well known as a difficult man. He gained a reputation for being arrogant and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. Some even claim he was a habitual drinker. He was prone to many outbursts of abusive language, abhorred untested theory, and ridiculed anybody who placed more importance on titles than practice (‘if disease put us to the test, all our splendor, title, ring, and name will be as much help as a horse’s tail’). During his time as a professor at University of Basel, he invited barber-surgeons, alchemists, apothecaries, and others lacking academic background to serve as examples of his belief that only those who practiced an art knew it: ‘The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.’ He held the chair of medicine at the University of Basel and city physician for less than a year. He angered his colleagues by lecturing in German instead of Latin in order to make medical knowledge more accessible to the common people. He is credited as the first to do so. He was the first to publicly condemn the medical authority of Avicenna and Galen and threw their writings into a bonfire on St. John’s Day in 1527.


In 1526 he bought the rights of citizenship in Strasbourg to establish his own practice. But soon after he was called to Basel to the sickbed of Johann Froben or Frobenius, a successful printer and publisher. Based on historical accounts, Paracelsus cured Frobenius. During that time, the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam, also at the University of Basel, witnessed the medical skills of Paracelsus, and the two scholars initiated a dialogue by letter on medical and theological subjects.

He was a contemporary of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther. During his life, he was compared with Luther partly because his ideas were different from the mainstream and partly because of openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine. This act struck people as similar to Luther’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Paracelsus rejected that comparison. Famously Paracelsus said, “I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.”


After slandering his opponents with vicious epithets due to a dispute over a physician’s fee, Paracelsus had to leave Basel secretly fearing punishment by the court. He became a tramp, wandering through Central Europe again. Around 1529, he officially adopted the name Paracelsus which is presumed to mean “surpassing Celsus,” the Roman writer on medicine, although, I suppose, it could also be “like Celsus” in that they both made novel contributions (“para” can mean “enlarge” in late Latin). In 1530, at the instigation of the medical faculty at the University of Leipzig, the city council of Nürnberg prohibited the printing of Paracelsus’ works. He revised old manuscripts and wrote new ones but had trouble finding publishers. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartznei (“The Great Surgery Book”) was published and enabled him to regain fame.

He died at the age of 47 in Salzburg, and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St. Sebastian in Salzburg. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of that church. After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and his therapies became more widely known and used. Most of Paracelsus’ writings were published after his death and still much controversy prevailed. He was accused of leading “a legion of homicide physicians” and his books were called “heretical and scandalous”. However, after many decades in 1618, a new pharmacopeia by the Royal College of Physicians in London included Paracelsian remedies.

His motto was “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” (“Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself.”)


Paracelsus was one of the first medical professionals to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine although his ideas were not useful. From his study of the elements as they were conceived in his time (earth, water, fire, and air), Paracelsus adopted a tripartite alternative to explain the nature of medicine: sulphur, mercury,  and salt. He mentions the model first in Opus paramirum dating to about 1530. Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases. He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He demonstrated his theory by burning a piece of wood. The fire was the work of sulphur, the smoke was mercury, and the residual ash was salt. Paracelsus also believed that mercury, sulphur, and salt provided a good explanation for the nature of medicine because each of these properties existed in many physical forms. The tria prima also defined human identity. Sulphur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); salt represented the body; mercury epitomized the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease. With every disease, the symptoms depended on which of the three principals caused the ailment. Paracelsus theorized that materials which are poisonous in large doses may be curative in small doses (one of the few things he got right).


His alchemical views led him to believe that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of Human (microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He believed that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. As a result of this hermetical idea of harmony, the universe’s macrocosm was represented in every person as a microcosm. An example of this correspondence is the doctrine of signatures used to identify curative powers of plants. If a plant looked like a part of the body, then this signified its ability to cure this given anatomy. Therefore, the root of the orchid looks like a testicle and can therefore heal any testicle associated illness. Paracelsus also suggested that just as humans can ward off the influence of evil spirits with morality, they can also ward off diseases with good health.

Paracelsus believed that true anatomy could only be understood once the nourishment for each part of the body was discovered. He believed that therefore, one must know the influence of the stars on these particular body parts. Diseases were caused by poisons brought from the stars. However, ‘poisons’ were not necessarily something negative, in part because related substances interacted, but also because only the dose determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Paracelsus further claimed that like cures like. If a star or poison caused a disease, then it must be countered by another star or poison. Paracelsus viewed the universe as one coherent organism pervaded by a uniting lifegiving spirit, and this in its entirety, humanity included, was God. His views put him at odds with the Church which saw a necessary difference between the Creator and the created.


His work Die große Wundarzney is a forerunner of antisepsis. This specific empirical knowledge originated from his personal experiences as an army physician in the Venetian wars. Paracelsus demanded that the application of cow dung, feathers and other obnoxious concoctions to wounds be stopped in favor of keeping the wounds clean, saying, “If you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself.” During his time as a military surgeon, Paracelsus was exposed to the crudity of medical knowledge at the time, when doctors believed that infection was a natural part of the healing process. He advocated for cleanliness and protection of wounds, as well as the regulation of diet.

One of his most overlooked achievements was the systematic study of minerals and the curative powers of alpine mineral springs. His countless wanderings also brought him deep into many areas of the Alps, where such therapies were already practiced on a less common scale than today. Paracelsus’ major work On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners documented the occupational hazards of metalworking, and included treatment and prevention strategies.


Paracelsus is credited with providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: “Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.” Paracelsus also called for the humane treatment of the mentally ill although he was ignored for several centuries. He saw them not to be possessed by evil spirits, but merely “brothers ensnared in a treatable malady.”

Paracelsus’ home of Einsiedeln is in Schwyz canton, which gives Switzerland its name. Älplermagronen is a popular and traditional recipe from the region. It’s basically pasta and potatoes baked in a creamy cheese sauce and served with hot apple sauce. I’m not sure how healthy it is, but in small doses should be all right.




1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 lb penne pasta
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 tbsp butter or oil
1 cup grated melting cheese (Gruyère, Appenzeller, Raclette)
½ cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
apple sauce


Heat oven to 375° F.

Cook the potatoes and pasta separately until they are al dente. Drain and reserve.

Heat the butter or oil over medium-low heat in a frying pan, add the onions and sauté them until they are golden brown.

Mix the pasta, potatoes, and cheese together and place in a casserole dish. Pour the cream over the dish and spread the browned onions on top. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt.

Bake covered for 10-15 minutes until the dish is hot and the cheese is melted. Serve with warmed applesauce.

Jun 012014


On this date in 1495 is entered the following in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland:

“To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.”

This is the first known reference to Scotch whisky. Obviously it had been in production for some time before this date, so my title is a tad misleading. Forgive me; I have to draw readers in somehow. “Aqua vitae” (the water of life) is a common Latin name for liquor but in this case means whisky. Historians estimate that this amount of malt would have produced the equivalent of 400 liters or more of whisky, which at that time was considered medicinal.

Friar John Cor was a Tironensian monk based at Lindores Abbey in Fife, but was also a servant at the court of James IV. The King gave him a gift of 14 shillings on Christmas Day in 1488, and at Christmas time in 1494 Cor was given black cloth from Lille in Flanders for his livery clothes as a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary to the court. The Tironensians were well regarded for their skills as alchemists. Because of this early quote, Lindores Abbey has come to be known as the birthplace of Scotch whisky. The whole entangled history of whisky, alchemy, monasticism, and medicine is intriguing.

Whisky is distilled beer. Beer is made by fermenting barley which usually has been malted (allowed to sprout and then roasted) because this intensifies the sugar content needed in fermentation. Archeological evidence shows that beer has been produced for at least 7,000 years, beginning somewhere in the Fertile Crescent – probably in the region now known as Iran. The earliest pottery shards containing traces of beer come from Godin Tepe in the Zagros mountains.


The discovery of how to make beer may have been accidental. There are natural yeasts in the air, so that if you leave wet barley out it will ferment on its own. Fermentation occurs when you combine yeast and sugar in a wet environment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Hence yeast is used for beer making and bread making. For beer making the alcohol is important (ancient beers were not carbonated), and for bread making the carbon dioxide is what makes doughs rise (and the alcohol burns off in baking). It has been argued that the control of yeast reactions was one of the first steps in the development of science and technology, setting off a chain of events that got us in the mess we are in today. For example, yeast breads need an oven. Once you have an oven you can fire pottery that is much more durable than pottery fired in the open . . . and so it goes. The onward march of civilization began with bread and beer.

Under conventional methods of brewing you can’t make a beer stronger than about 12% alcohol because at higher concentrations the yeast dies. To get higher concentrations you have to shift to distillation. Generally when people think about distillation they think about producing spirits such as whisky, but distillation has many more uses than producing drinks that make you warm and fuzzy. Making strong drinks is not why distillation was first invented.

The first clear evidence of true distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the 1st century CE, although the Chinese may have independently developed the process around the same time. Distilled water was described in the 2nd century CE by Alexander of Aphrodisias – working on producing drinkable water from seawater. By the 3rd century CE the Alexandrians were using a distillation alembic. The principles of the alembic are the basis of all true distillation. The image shown here of an alembic is from a work by the 8th century Persian alchemist J?bir ibn Hayy?n. Distillation relies on the fact that different liquids have different boiling points. So the trick is to take a mixture that is made up of two different liquids, such as beer, which consists of water and alcohol, and then raise it to a temperature above the boiling point of the alcohol 79°C but below the boiling point of the water 100°C. That way the alcohol boils off but the water does not. This is distillation.


Of course it is not much fun to simply boil the alcohol off a perfectly good batch of beer. What you want to do is capture the alcohol and leave the water behind. That’s where the alembic comes in. From the diagram you can see that there is a main vessel under which is a fire. In the main chamber of the vessel is the mix you want to distill. You heat it to the right temperature, the vapors boiling off rise to the top and then descend through the long, thin neck where they cool and return to a liquid which is then collected in a flask at the end of the neck. The stuff you don’t want is left behind. You might wonder why abstemious Muslims such as ibn Hayy?n were distilling alcohol. The fact is that they were not. They were using distillation to make perfumes (which were very famous), or to perform alchemical experiments.

Muslim alchemists brought the process of distillation to western Europe where it was used to distill alcohol for the first time. By the 12th century there is evidence of the distillation of alcohol in numerous places including Italy, Germany, and Ireland. It probably arrived in Scotland via Ireland, but the dates are unclear. In each of these places distillation was used on the local alcoholic beverage to produce spirits. Thus Irish and then Scotch whiskies came about. The issue remains as to how monks were involved.

Monks, like John Cor, were frequently apothecaries and had installations in their monasteries to produce potions and elixirs. That is, as monks they were working as healers. Whisky was one such elixir. Cor was producing it not to be drunk as a beverage, but as a medicine. Consumption of distilled beverages rose dramatically in Europe in and after the mid-14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly used as remedies for the Black Death. Liquors were used to cure a number of ailments because their consumption made patients feel better! Hence they were generally known under the term aqua vitae, the water of life. Scots Gaelic for “water of life” is uisge beatha, pronounced ooshki bahah. From ooshki it is one small step to “whisky.”


The kind of whisky that John Cor produced probably did not taste very pleasant although it did the trick physically (roughly 40% alcohol).  The problem lay in the materials used to make alembics. Recent archeological evidence suggests that early Scottish alembics were made either of glass or pottery. They give you the desired alcoholic content, but distilling beer into whisky also concentrates sulfurous compounds, especially dimethyl trisulfide (DMTS), found in the original drink. DMTS in high concentrations is extremely foul tasting. I suppose people did not mind having their elixirs taste bad because medicine is supposed to be nasty. But, if you want to use whisky as a drink you have to get rid of the DMTS, or at least enough of it that it becomes one among many notes. After all, it is present in a large number of vegetable products we eat every day and we don’t mind because the concentrations are so low. The solution to the problem is to make your alembic/still out of copper. Copper eliminates a large percentage of the DMTS and leaves a much more pleasant liquor as a result. I am not sure when copper stills were first used in Scotland, but when they were, the transformation of aqua vitae to whisky was complete. Slàinte !

I gather from my researches that cooking with whisky has become something of a vogue these days. Chefs describe it as a flavor enhancer as if it were salt or MSG. There’s something inherently blasphemous to me about stirring a dram of single malt into a sauce. Yet various single malt distilleries are promoting the idea, presumably to boost sales. Pass. Whisky has long been used in cake baking and steamed puddings, but I’ll pass there too. My objections here are less about the morality of the act, and more about the fact that I don’t like the taste; I prefer to use brandy in fruit cake and Christmas pudding. I do, however, find the use of whisky in dishes that are uncooked quite acceptable. I give you two, one savory and one sweet.

Auld Alliance is a spread made by blending Scotch whisky with Roquefort. The name refers to the fact that there were numerous treaties between Scotland and France dating back to the 13th century against their common enemy – England. There have also been a number of cultural exchanges between the two partners over the years.

Take whatever quantity of Roquefort you need and let it come fully to room temperature. Then pound, mash, and stir it until you have a creamy paste. Then, drop by drop, blend in whisky until the Roquefort has absorbed all that it can. Pot it up and refrigerate for 3 hours or so. Serve it spread on water biscuits or oatcakes, or you can use it as a dip for crudités.

I’ve only made this once and I will warn you that it has a bite to it. You’ll want to spread it sparingly.


Cranachan is a traditional dessert that has become very popular in recent years with people making all manner of changes to it. The traditional version is oatmeal that has been toasted, soaked in whisky, folded in with whipped cream, and served with raspberries. As far as I am concerned this needs no improvement.

Using a heavy skillet, toast 3 ounces of pinhead oatmeal over medium heat. Shake the pan often to make sure the oatmeal does not scorch, which it easily can if you are not vigilant. Let it cool and then place it in a bowl. Pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons of whisky and let it soak overnight. Whip 1 cup of whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Do not overbeat. Gently fold in the oatmeal. Put a few raspberries in the bottom of chilled glasses. Fill up the glasses with the cream mix. Alternatively you may fold raspberries directly into the cream and then garnish the top.