May 192018
 

Today is the birthday (1925) of Malcolm Little who became known to the world as Malcolm X when he became a member of the Nation of Islam, but also took the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz after he went to Mecca for the Hajj in 1964, but was, and still is, best known as Malcolm X. For most of his public career he was known as the public voice of the Nation of Islam which, under leader Elijah Muhammad, preached radical racism and separatism, along with violent rebellion when necessary. This is the persona that many people in the United States remember him for. Both his criminal background before the Nation of Islam, and his fundamental change of heart after his break with the Nation of Islam have largely been forgotten, although there are several movies concerning his life that accentuate this period. The best reference point is The Autobiography of Malcolm X which was actually written by Alex Haley based on numerous taped interviews with Malcolm between 1963 and his death in 1965, and published posthumously. It was one of the first books I taught as a brand-new assistant professor in a Freshman Studies program in 1980, and I found it completely mesmerizing. Back in the 1960s (when I was living in Australia), the images we got of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States were limited and extremely one sided. Malcolm’s murder in 1965 seemed like yet another political murder in a bloody decade that included two Kennedys and Martin Luther King along with Malcolm. I had not the remotest idea what it was all about. Reading the Autobiography set me straight in so many ways.

My simple suggestion is that if you want to understand Malcolm X you should read the autobiography. It is crafted, of course. All autobiographies are. In this case it is crafted as much by Haley as by Malcolm himself, but Haley does use Malcolm’s own words and does follow the general thread of his life through his development as a criminal in Boston and New York, after being more or less orphaned in Michigan, how he had something of an awakening in his 6 ½ years in prison which crystallized when he came under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, but which he then put behind him when he converted to Sunni Islam and embarked on a much more universalistic call for human rights that set aside the violent separatism of the Nation of Islam. This final period was tragically short, cut short because he was murdered by members of the Nation of Islam, most likely under direct orders from Elijah Muhammad, although the details may always remain shrouded in obscurity. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder, but only one, Talmadge Hayer, admitted guilt. The other two protested innocence and Hayer also refused to point the finger at them. He claimed that other members of the Nation of Islam were involved but initially he would not name them. The police did not re-open the case, when Hayer in the late 1970s filed sworn affidavits naming four men – not those convicted – of being complicit in the murder; nor did the FBI even though they had undercover agents working with the Nation of Islam. It has even been suggested that the FBI was aware of the Nation of Islam’s intent to kill Malcolm but did nothing to prevent it, nor to warn him.

The inherent problem with assessing Malcolm’s philosophy is that it changed dramatically after his journey to Mecca when he became aware of what traditional Islam was about, as opposed to the heavily politicized and contorted version that Elijah Muhammad had created. For most of Malcolm’s public career he was little more than the charismatic mouthpiece (he called himself, the “ventriloquist’s dummy”) for the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. These doctrines included the belief that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils who were created by an evil scientist named Yakub. The Nation of Islam believed that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent. When questioned concerning his statements that white people were devils, Malcolm said: “history proves the white man is a devil. Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people … anybody who does these things is nothing but a devil.”

Malcolm called Islam the “true religion of black mankind” and that Christianity was “the white man’s religion” that had been imposed upon African Americans by their slave-masters. He said that the Nation of Islam followed Islam as it was practiced around the world, but the Nation’s teachings varied from those of other Muslims because they were adapted to the “uniquely pitiful” condition of black people in the United States. He taught that Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation, was Allah incarnate, and that Elijah Muhammad was his Messenger, or Prophet.

While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm advocated the complete separation of blacks from whites. The Nation of Islam proposed the establishment of a separate country for African Americans in the southern or southwestern United States as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa. He also suggested the United States government owed reparations to African Americans for the unpaid labor of their ancestors. He also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence, advocating instead that black people should defend themselves. In these days he was a vocal opponent of Martin Luther King and his non-violent protests.

In the early 1960s tensions between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad arose, almost certainly because Elijah Muhammad perceived Malcolm as a threat to his leadership, but also because Malcolm became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad. In the 1950s Malcolm was by far the most important force for recruitment for the Nation of Islam – by one estimate increasing its membership from 500 to 25,000 in a matter of years. He was responsible, for example, for the conversion of the boxer Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali on conversion, which, in turn inspired more converts. Malcolm’s increased public prominence in relation to his own certainly sparked jealousy in Elijah Muhammad, but Malcolm also began to question Elijah Muhammad’s authority. For one thing, Elijah Muhammad was suspected of improper sexual relations with a number of his secretaries which he ultimately admitted and justified by pointing to the habits of the patriarchs. This did not sit well with Malcolm’s strict ethical code, nor did Elijah Muhammad’s efforts to be conciliatory to Martin Luther King’s movement. After Malcolm made imprudent remarks about the assassination of JFK and was ordered silenced for 90 days by Elijah Muhammad, he split from the Nation of Islam and became an orthodox Sunni Muslim.

In keeping with standard Islamic tradition, in April 1964, with financial help from his half-sister Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm flew to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, as the start of his Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who is able to do so. He was delayed in Jeddah when his U.S. citizenship and inability to speak Arabic caused his status as a Muslim to be questioned. He had received Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam’s book The Eternal Message of Muhammad with his visa approval, and he contacted the author. Azzam’s son arranged for his release and lent him his personal hotel suite. The next morning Malcolm learned that Prince Faisal had designated him as a state guest. Several days later, after completing the Hajj rituals, Malcolm had an audience with the prince. Malcolm later said that seeing Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals led him to see Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome.

This transformed Malcolm was not the man that many people came to know. He was perceived as a traitor by the Nation of Islam, and the mainstream press continued to characterize him as a violent black supremacist. Throughout 1964, as his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, Malcolm was repeatedly threatened. In February, a leader of Temple Number Seven ordered the bombing of his car. In March, Elijah Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”; the April 10 edition of Muhammad Speaks featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm’s bouncing, severed head.

On June 8, FBI surveillance recorded a telephone call in which Betty Shabazz was told that her husband was “as good as dead”. Four days later, an FBI informant received a tip that “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.” (That same month the Nation of Islam sued to reclaim Malcolm’s residence in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. His family was ordered to vacate but on February 14, 1965‍—‌the night before a hearing on postponing the eviction‍—‌the house was destroyed by fire.) On July 9 Elijah Muhammad aide John Ali (suspected of being an undercover FBI agent) referred to Malcolm X by saying, “Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death”. The September 1964 issue of Ebony dramatized Malcolm’s defiance of these threats by publishing a photograph of him holding an M1 carbine while peering out a window.

What might have become of his nascent new movement that was true to Sunni Islam, and opposed to the violent, separatist rhetoric of the Nation of Islam is anyone’s guess. It was cut short by his murder, although certainly its seeds can be seen in the Autobiography which, again, I highly recommend (despite its own limitations).

Malcolm was true to standard Islamic dietary practices in avoiding pork, and was generally opposed to Soul Food, not only because it is rich in pork fat, but because he thought of it as generally unhealthy. By all accounts, his favorite dish was roast chicken, steamed kale, and rice. I scarcely need to remind you that when I roast a chicken I cook it on the highest heat possible – 500˚F/260˚C. I usually cook kale by washing it thoroughly in several changes of water, and then placing it in a pot with only the residual water from washing, and steaming on medium-high heat for about 30 minutes.

Nov 242016
 

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On this date in 1963 – in the first live, televised murder – night club owner Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of John F. Kennedy, in the basement of Dallas police department headquarters. I remember it well. I was 12 years old at the time and living in South Australia. This means that my personal timeline is off by a day because all the momentous events of the time were delayed in reportage on Australian television. So, for example, I did not hear about the assassination of Kennedy until I was on my way to a cricket match on the morning of Saturday the 23rd of November, and news of Ruby’s murder of Oswald did not reach us until Monday the 25th. Still it was a shocking, breathless time and seemed to be the launch of a decade of political murders in the U.S. –  Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X – amidst all the general turmoil of the civil rights movement, which to me seemed incomprehensible at the time. Scarcely had we assimilated the death of a president than we had to take in the murder of his accused assassin in front of television cameras. For days and days the indistinct images of Kennedy’s and Oswald’s murders were played over and over, followed by the state funeral with more flashbacks to the murders.

Here’s the Oswald murder:

In the case of the Kennedy assassination there was very little to show at the time. It reminds us of how different those times were. Nowadays, a presidential motorcade would have blanket video coverage, both official and by personal phones and cameras, so that you’d have all manner of angles. In 1963 there was no official video of the moment of assassination, and only some grainy home movies. Lack of good video evidence has led to an endless stream of conspiracy theories that cannot be laid to rest, no matter how many times the evidence is raked over.

Conspiracy theories are further fueled by the fact that we never got to hear from Oswald. He made a few brief statements to the courts and to the press, essentially denying everything, and then he was murdered. This time it was caught on video, so we got to see it all (again and again and again). But the murder only deepened the mystery of the original assassination. We barely knew who Lee Harvey Oswald was or why he had been arrested so soon after the assassination. Now we had to wonder who Jack Ruby was, why Oswald was being paraded out in public for all to see, and how Ruby had managed to walk up to Oswald without interference, pull out a gun, and shoot him at point blank range. Those are my boyhood images of the United States, and they have not changed a whole lot.

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I’m not sure how much sense it makes to rehash what we now know, over 50 years later, about Ruby and Oswald. There’s still a great deal of murk covering the light. In my mind the enduring mystery is why Ruby shot Oswald at all. His overt motive, which he stated repeatedly, was that he was devastated by the assassination of Kennedy, and wanted to spare his widow the trauma of returning to Dallas to testify at Oswald’s trial. But also, over and over, as Ruby was interrogated and then tried, he asserted that he knew “true facts” (I’m not sure what other kinds of facts there are), and these “true facts” would shock the world. Ruby never revealed in oral testimony or in writing what it was that he allegedly knew, so conspiracy theories abound. Was Ruby a hit man for organized crime or union bosses, paid off to silence Oswald before he could reveal his true motives in killing Kennedy? Was Ruby paying off a debt without clear understanding of why Oswald needed to be silenced? Or was he just your average Texan with a gun in the right place at the right time?

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Just based on gut reaction after sifting the most commonly available data I’m inclined to apply Occam’s Razor to it all. In both murders dumb luck and coincidence seem to have played a part, and, unfortunately, neither sit well as explanations when it comes to world shattering events. Oswald’s movements and actions on 22nd November seem pretty firmly established by eye-witnesses. It’s also reasonably well established that he bought the murder weapon, he was a trained sniper, and he was working in the book depository (and was seen there) on the day of the assassination. It does not take much brain power to put 2 and 2 together. Add to this the fact that Oswald was not well educated, had well documented sympathies with Russia and Cuba, and could be impulsive. You don’t need to look further for motive and opportunity.

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When it comes to grand conspiracy theories things come unstuck very quickly. Oswald could not have secured a job at the book depository a month earlier because he knew about the motorcade passing by on the 22nd – it had not been planned yet. Kennedy’s visit and the parade route were last minute affairs. Of course there are always loonies intent on assassinating presidents and popes and kings, and often a conspiracy is necessary, as in the famous cases of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe there was a conspiracy afoot to kill Kennedy. Who knows? But even if there were one in the making, I can’t see how Oswald was involved in the affairs of shady union bosses or mobsters in Chicago. I can see a methodical, intelligent, uneducated, skilled marksman with a grudge taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and then getting caught because of lack of sufficient planning.

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My same thinking applies to Ruby. He could not have timed the murder precisely and been on the spot at just the right moment because of elaborate advanced planning by conspirators because Oswald’s movements were not carved in stone, nor well known ahead of time. True, press were on hand for the move from the police department to the jail. That part was well known. Timing was not, and the move was, in fact, delayed by circumstances. Ruby’s ability to get into what was supposed to be a secure area and mingle with reporters was largely happenstance. All of the talk afterwards about shocking “true facts” (adding fuel to conspiracy theories) seems to me to be nothing more than the throwing out of possible bargaining chips as his trial, sentencing, and appeals were underway. Ruby claimed to be in fear of his life after Oswald’s murder, and would not talk without adequate protection, which he claimed repeatedly he was not receiving. Why then would he not have talked on his deathbed when the threat no longer had force? It seems much more likely to me that he was playing the system with loose talk that had no substance. I don’t think luck, impulsiveness, stupidity, not to mention poor judgment and irrationality are given near enough credit in the analysis of historical events.

The anniversaries of these events often coincide with Thanksgiving. This year today is Thanksgiving Day which seems to me to be another lucky coincidence when it comes to food. Finding a dish suitable for celebrating murder is a trifle macabre. Talking about Thanksgiving is a lot simpler, and both turkey and JFK are national symbols of the US. I’ve said my piece about Thanksgiving turkey here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thanksgiving/  No need to repeat. I don’t like turkey all that much, and U.S. cooks have precious little idea how to cook it. My “secret” for roasting all poultry so that it is succulent is summed up in three instructions: highest possible heat | quickest time |smallest bird. That’s it. I used to cook an 8 lb turkey at 500°F for 2 hours. The skin was crisp, the breast was juicy, and all the meat was succulent. If you need more meat cook 2 or 3 small birds. Gravy should enhance the dish, not be the replacement for moistness in the meat. Would you eat cardboard if it had gravy on it? Long, slow cooking at ultra-low temperatures has an intuitive feel about it, but it is the classic recipe for dried out breast. When simmering in liquid, long and slow works; when roasting it does not. Get it through your skull.

Let’s turn to the venerable turkey sandwich, the favored after-Thanksgiving snack whilst watching football. With dried-out roast turkey breast as your basis, how do you compensate? Lots of people slather the sandwich with mayonnaise. For me that’s the same as using gravy for moistening. Ross Geller from Friends makes a big deal out of his sister Monica’s sandwich which includes the “moist maker” – an extra layer of bread in the middle soaked in gravy. Yuck !! Add soggy bread to an otherwise tasteless sandwich. My answer: don’t dry out the turkey in the first place. Succulent breast makes excellent sandwiches, and the trick is not to try to add moistness but to find a way to add to the flavor. Here’s my lunch sandwich for work today. I made roast turkey and roast potatoes with gravy for breakfast to tip my hat to the celebration.

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My sandwich is a big slab of juicy breast dotted with mostarda di Cremona (sweet, sour, spicy, and fruity). I have no doubt that it will go down a treat between morning and afternoon classes.

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Aug 122016
 

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Today is the birthday (1925) of twins Norris Dewar McWhirter, CBE, and Alan Ross McWhirter, both of whom were athletes, sports journalists, television presenters, and co-founders of Guinness World Records, which began as The Guinness Book of Records, a book which they wrote and annually updated together between 1955 and 1975.

Norris and Ross were the twin sons (Norris was the elder) of William McWhirter, the editor of the Sunday Pictorial, and Margaret Williamson. In 1929, as William was working on the founding of the Northcliffe Newspapers chain of provincial newspapers, the family moved to “Aberfoyle”, in Broad Walk, Winchmore Hill.  Like their elder brother, Kennedy (born 1923), Norris and Ross were educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Oxford.  Between 1943 and 1946, both served with the Royal Navy on active service in the Atlantic (escort duty) and the Pacific (minesweeping).

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Ross and Norris both became sports journalists in 1950. In 1951, they published Get to Your Marks, and earlier that year they had founded an agency to provide facts and figures to Fleet Street, setting out, in Norris’ words “to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopaedias and advertisers.” At the same time, he became a founding member of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians.

Norris came to public attention while working for the BBC as a sports commentator, when on 6 May 1954, he kept the time at Iffley Rd track in Oxford when Roger Bannister ran the first sub four-minute mile. His announcement after the race has gone down in sports history because of his droll drawing out of the delivery of the actual result:

As a result of Event Four, the one mile, the winner was R.G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes…

The rest of the announcement was drowned out in the deafening uproar.

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One of the athletes in Bannister’s record mile, whom the twins knew and covered on several occasions, was Christopher Chataway, who, as an employee at Guinness, introduced them to Hugh Beaver (managing director of Guinness). After an interview in 1954 in which the Guinness directors enjoyed testing the twins’ knowledge of records and unusual facts, the brothers agreed to start work on the book that would become The Guinness Book of Records. In August 1955, the first slim green volume – 198 pages long – was at the bookstalls, and in four months it was the UK’s number one non-fiction best-seller.

Both brothers were regulars on the BBC television show The Record Breakers. They were noted for their encyclopedic memories, enabling them to provide detailed answers to questions from the audience about world records – both published and unpublished.

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Both brothers had political views that I find repugnant. They were both highly conservative with pro-business, anti-trade union opinions (bordering on libertarian). Both stood for elections as Tory MPs, but were defeated. They also had hard-line policies concerning sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and England.

Ross was a vocal critic of British government policy in Northern Ireland, and called for a “tougher” response by the Army against Irish republicans. He advocated restrictions on the Irish community in Britain such as making it compulsory for all Irish people in Britain to register with the local police and to provide signed photographs of themselves when renting flats or booking into hotels and hostels. In addition, he offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for several recent high-profile bombings in England that were publicly claimed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

On 27 November 1975, Ross was murdered by two IRA volunteers, Harry Duggan and Hugh Doherty, both of whom were members of what became known as the Balcombe Street Gang, the group for whose capture Ross had offered the reward. He was shot at close range in the head and chest outside his home in Enfield, Middlesex. Of course I absolutely deplore this murder, and admire his courage for standing out against violence. I will not brook any sentiment that suggests that he deserved to be a target.

Following Ross’s murder, Norris co-founded the right-wing political organization the National Association for Freedom (now The Freedom Association). This organization initiated legal challenges against the trade union movement in the UK, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and the European Economic Community (EEC), later the European Union (EU). I don’t agree with any of these stances or their political motivation.

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After Ross’s death, Norris continued to appear alone on Record Breakers, eventually making him one of the most recognizable people on children’s television in the 1970s and 1980s, leading him to be made a CBE in 1980.

Norris retired from The Guinness Book of Records in 1985, though he continued in an advisory role until 1996, when he was forced out by the company, which wanted to downplay the listing of records in favor of dramatic illustrations. Nonetheless, he continued to write, editing a new reference book, Norris McWhirter’s Book of Millennium Records, in 1999. Norris died of a heart attack at his home in Kington Langley, Wiltshire, on 19 April 2004, aged 78.

Several world records that were once included in Guinness World Records have been removed for ethical reasons, including concerns for the wellbeing of potential record breakers. The “eating and drinking records” section of Human Achievements was dropped over concerns that potential competitors could harm themselves and expose the publisher to litigation. These changes included the removal of all liquor, wine, and beer drinking records, along with other unusual records for consuming such unlikely things as bicycles and trees. Nonetheless, the world’s largest, heaviest, etc. foods are still very much in play.

This gallery taken from this site — http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2013/03/18/top-7-record-breaking-foods/ — gives an idea of why you’re not going to break any records cooking today.

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Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be part of making such gargantuan dishes. They are surely a tribute to quantity over quality which I heartily disdain. World’s most expensive foods don’t float my boat either as in the case of this fish sandwich:

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The Birds Eye company created this sandwich to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. It cost £187 to make.

Most delicious, most artistic, and so forth interest me a lot more, but here we’re dealing with personal aesthetics which are not quantifiable. You might be able to quantify world’s favorite, but that’s iffy. Oxfam recently did a survey of 16,000 people worldwide and determined that pasta was the most popular choice. Big help. What does that even mean? What kind of pasta? Prepared how? In general, food superlatives are of little interest to me. I don’t have a favorite food, as such. My tastes constantly change based on all manner of factors. The list of the foods I’ve disliked the most is fairly short, but, of course, it’s highly subjective, and every one of them is something that some people adore. I’ll die a happy man if I never eat sea cucumber with winter melon again, but it is considered a great delicacy in east Asia. You’ll at least give me credit for eating the whole plateful I was served, even though I wanted to run a mile.

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Basically I think you ought to cook your own favorite today, but given that the McWhirters had a Scots heritage I’ll go with what many people outside of Scotland will grant as a (perhaps uniquely) strange dish in name and construction – crappit heid. Actually when it comes to a competition for strangest name in Scots’ cooking there are a lot of entrants: festy cock, clapshot, rumbledethumps, and fatty cutty are strong contenders. But crappit heid has name and ingredients on its side, even though it’s a great dish. Crappit heid is lowland Scots dialect for “stuffed head” – stuffed fish head to be precise.

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Crappit heid originated in the fishing communities of the Hebrides and North-Eastern Scotland in the 18th century. Money was scarce so the desirable fillets of cod or haddock were be sold by fishermen to markets, but the offal and less attractive parts were retained for the pot. Crappit heid was a common meal in fishing communities, consisting of the head of a large cod or similar sized fish, washed, descaled and then stuffed with a mixture of oats, suet, onion, white pepper and the liver of the fish. This was then sewn or skewered to close the aperture and boiled in seawater. The dish was served with potatoes or other root vegetables in season.

Although once a common dish in Scotland, crappit heid has, like many traditional dishes, become a rarity. Cod livers are now harder to obtain and usually only available if the fish has been caught by local line fishermen. However if you can get them, they add valuable nutrients including, of course, cod liver oil. I don’t live anywhere near the sea at present and can’t get access to whole fresh fish to give it a whirl. I don’t imagine either that any of my readers will want to rush out to snag fish heads for dinner. Here’s a website instead that tells you all you want if you are interested. The URL says it all:

http://foodanddrink.scotsman.com/general/a-history-of-crappit-heid-including-a-recipe-for-making-your-own/