Jan 032019
 

Today is the birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, (my college) from 1925 to 1945. When I was an undergraduate, I would see him coming to dinner in hall from time to time. This was a very formal affair in those days. We all had to wear a suit and tie plus our academic gowns. The dons (professors in U.S. dialect) processed in to sit at a table on a raised dais (called high table), followed by grace in Latin. By that time Tolkien was old and bent over, using two canes to walk. He looked like something from Middle Earth. This post is my second on Tolkien largely caused by oversight, but, the old gaffer deserves an extra cheer given that we were college mates (of sorts). I read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit in the wave of enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work in the 1960s and continue to remain disgusted by all attempts at turning the books into films (much as my son is disgusted by Harry Potter movies).

Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province in South Africa) to Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1857–1896), an English bank manager, and his wife Mabel, née Suffield (1870–1904). The couple had left England when Arthur was promoted to head of the Bloemfontein office of the British bank for which he worked.

When he was three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother on what was intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in South Africa of rheumatic fever before he could join them. This left the family without an income, so Tolkien’s mother took him to live with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Soon after, in 1896, they moved to Sarehole (now in Hall Green), then a Worcestershire village, later annexed to Birmingham. He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, along with nearby towns and villages such as Bromsgrove, Alcester, and Alvechurch and places such as his aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he used in his fiction.

Mabel Tolkien taught her two children at home. Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favorite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early.

In 1904, when Tolkien was 12, his mother died of acute diabetes at Fern Cottage in Rednal, which she was renting. She was then about 34 years of age, about as old as a person with diabetes mellitus type 1 could live without treatment—insulin was not discovered until two decades later. Prior to her death, Mabel Tolkien had assigned the guardianship of her sons to her close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was assigned to bring them up as good Catholics.

After his mother’s death, Tolkien grew up in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham and attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and later St. Philip’s School. In 1903, he won a Foundation Scholarship and returned to King Edward’s. While a pupil there, Tolkien was one of the cadets from the school’s Officers Training Corps who helped “line the route” for the 1910 coronation parade of King George V. Like the other cadets from King Edward’s, Tolkien was posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.

While in his early teens, Tolkien had his first encounter with a constructed language, Animalic, an invention of his cousins, Mary and Marjorie Incledon. At that time, he was studying Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Their interest in Animalic soon died away, but Mary and others, including Tolkien himself, invented a new and more complex language called Nevbosh. The next constructed language he came to work with, Naffarin, would be his own creation. Tolkien learned Esperanto some time before 1909. Around 10th June 1909 he composed “The Book of the Foxrook”, a sixteen-page notebook, where the “earliest example of one of his invented alphabets” appears. Short texts in this notebook are written in Esperanto.

In 1911, while they were at King Edward’s School, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman, formed a semi-secret society they called the T.C.B.S. The initials stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, alluding to their fondness for drinking tea in Barrow’s Stores near the school and, secretly, in the school library. After leaving school, the members stayed in touch and, in December 1914, they held a “council” in London at Wiseman’s home. For Tolkien, the result of this meeting was a strong dedication to writing poetry.

In 1911, Tolkien went on a summer holiday in Switzerland, a trip that he recollects vividly in a 1968 letter, noting that Bilbo’s journey across the Misty Mountains (“including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods”) is directly based on his adventures as their party of 12 hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and on to camp in the moraines beyond Mürren. Fifty-seven years later, Tolkien remembered his regret at leaving the view of the eternal snows of Jungfrau and Silberhorn, “the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams”. They went across the Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and on across the Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen. They continued across the Grimsel Pass, through the upper Valais to Brig and on to the Aletsch glacier and Zermatt. In October of the same year, Tolkien began studying at Exeter College, Oxford. He initially studied classics but changed to English language and literature, graduating in 1915 with first-class honours.

In August 1914 Britain entered the First World War. Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer for the British Army. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled: “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” Instead, Tolkien, “endured the obloquy”, and entered a programme by which he delayed enlistment until completing his degree. By the time he passed his finals in July 1915, Tolkien recalled that the hints were “becoming outspoken from relatives”. He was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15th July 1915. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for 11 months. In a letter to his future wife, Edith, Tolkien complained: “Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.” Following their wedding, the couple took up lodgings near the training camp.

On 2nd June 1916, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for posting to France. The Tolkiens spent the night before his departure in a room at the Plough & Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston, Birmingham. He later wrote: “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.” On 5th June 1916, Tolkien boarded a troop transport for an overnight voyage to Calais. Like other soldiers arriving for the first time, he was sent to the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) base depot at Étaples. On 7th June, he was informed that he had been assigned as a signals officer to the 11th (Service) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers.

While waiting to be summoned to his unit, Tolkien sank into boredom. To pass the time, he composed a poem entitled The Lonely Isle, which was inspired by his feelings during the sea crossing to Calais. To evade the British Army’s postal censorship, he also developed a code of dots by which Edith could track his movements. He left Étaples on 27th June 1916 and joined his battalion at Rubempré, near Amiens. He wound up commanding enlisted men who were drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. According to John Garth, he “felt an affinity for these working class men”, but military protocol prohibited friendships with “other ranks”. Instead, he was required to “take charge of them, discipline them, train them, and probably censor their letters … If possible, he was supposed to inspire their love and loyalty.” Tolkien later lamented, “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”[55]

Tolkien arrived at the Somme in early July 1916. In between terms behind the lines at Bouzincourt, he participated in the assaults on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig salient. Tolkien’s time in combat was a terrible stress for Edith, who feared that every knock on the door might carry news of her husband’s death.

On 27th October 1916, as his battalion attacked Regina Trench, Tolkien came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice. He was invalided to England on 8 November 1916. Many of his dearest school friends were killed in the war. Among their number were Rob Gilson of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, who was killed on the first day of the Somme while leading his men in the assault on Beaumont Hamel. Fellow T.C.B.S. member Geoffrey Smith was killed during the same battle when a German artillery shell landed on a first aid post. Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out following his return to England. A weak and emaciated Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service.

During his recovery in a cottage in Little Haywood, Staffordshire, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin. Lost Tales represented Tolkien’s attempt to create a mythology for England, a project he would abandon without ever completing. Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, but he had recovered enough to do home service at various camps.

On 3rd November 1920, Tolkien was demobilized and left the army, retaining his rank of lieutenant. His first civilian job after the war was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. In 1920, he took up a post as reader in English language at the University of Leeds. While at Leeds, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon; both became academic standard works for several decades. He translated Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College.

During his time at Pembroke College Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. During this time Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, an informal group of writers who met weekly at a pub in Oxford. The Eagle and Child, known affectionately as the Bird and Baby, has claimed pride of place in tourist circles as the permanent home of the Inklings with a plaque located in the corner that used to be the pub’s snug. It is a lesser known fact that the Inklings more often than not met in the Lamb and Flag (across the street from the Eagle and Child), and, mercifully, does not currently advertise the fact and is, in consequence, a quieter and more peaceful location for a lunchtime pie and pint.

Tolkien once wrote:

I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).

Frodo was fond of mushrooms and frequently stole them from his neighbor’s garden, so mushrooms it is. When I was a boy in South Australia, I used to walk across a sheep paddock to a shop where I bought my penny sweeties on Saturday mornings, and, after a rainfall there were often field mushrooms to pick to take home to mum who cooked them for breakfast. Those field mushrooms were so much richer in taste than the white commercial mushrooms I became accustomed to in England later on. Then when I bought a riverside house in the New York Catskills my woodlot and the surrounding woodlands were common hunting grounds for boletus, sulfur shelf, morels, and puff balls. I also grew accustomed to buying shiitake, enokitake, oyster mushrooms, and straw mushrooms in a Japanese market near my university. When I moved to Kunming in southern China a number of years ago, I was overwhelmed with the array of wild mushrooms sold on the streets by people from the surrounding hills who picked them in the woods and brought them to town for sale. Now in Phnom Penh, the variety is limited to dried and cultivated mushrooms, but I always keep a plentiful variety handy.

I’ll eat an omelet stuffed with lightly sautéed mushrooms (of whatever variety is on hand) at the drop of a hat, and mixed mushroom soup is a common pleasure. My favorite way to cook enokitake is to wrap them in foil with a knob of butter and a thin slice of lemon, and bake the package for about 15 minutes at 450°F.

My suggestion for the day is to break out of your rut if you are in one. Maitake, also known as Hen-of-the-Woods, is a great choice or white or brown beech mushrooms – if you can find them. They are common in markets in Asia, but you can find them in Europe or the US if you look hard enough. In fact, buy whatever does not look like a white button mushroom and use it in any recipe that calls for mushrooms. Go for crimini or portobello mushrooms if that’s the most exotic you can find.

Aug 012018
 

Claudius, Roman emperor, was born on this date in 10 BCE at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France). He was the first (and for a long time, only) Roman emperor to have been born outside Italy. He had two older siblings, Germanicus and Livilla. His mother, Antonia, may have had two other children who died young. His maternal grandparents were Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, Augustus’ sister, and he was therefore the great-great grandnephew of Gaius Julius Caesar. His paternal grandparents were Livia, Augustus’ third wife, and Tiberius Claudius Nero. During his reign, Claudius revived the rumor that his father Drusus was actually the illegitimate son of Augustus, to give the appearance that Augustus was Claudius’ paternal grandfather.

In 9 BCE, his father Drusus unexpectedly died on campaign in Germania, possibly from illness. Claudius was then left to be raised by his mother, who never remarried. When Claudius’ disabilities became evident — he spoke with a pronounced lisp, drooled, and walked with a limp — the relationship with his family turned sour. Antonia referred to him as a monster, and used him as a standard for stupidity. She seems to have passed her son off to his grandmother Livia for a number of years. Livia was a little kinder, but nevertheless often sent him short, angry letters of reproof. He was put under the care of a “former mule-driver” to keep him disciplined, under the logic that his condition was due to laziness and a lack of will-power. However, by the time he reached his teenage years his symptoms apparently waned and his family took some notice of his scholarly interests.

In 7 CE, Livy was hired to tutor him in history, with the assistance of Sulpicius Flavus. He spent most of his time with the latter and the philosopher Athenodorus. Augustus, according to a letter, was surprised at the clarity of Claudius’ oratory. Expectations about his future began to increase. His work as a budding historian damaged his prospects for advancement in public life. According to Vincent Scramuzza and others, Claudius began work on a history of the Civil Wars that was either too truthful or too critical of Octavian—then reigning as Augustus Caesar. In either case, it was far too early for such an account, and may have only served to remind Augustus that Claudius was Antony’s descendant. His mother and grandmother quickly put a stop to it, and this may have convinced them that Claudius was not fit for public office. He could not be trusted to toe the existing party line.

When he returned to the narrative later in life, Claudius skipped over the wars of the second triumvirate altogether. But the damage was done, and his family pushed him into the background. When the Arch of Pavia was erected to honor the Imperial clan in 8 BCE, Claudius’ name (now Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus after his elevation to paterfamilias of Claudii Nerones on the adoption of his brother) was inscribed on the edge—past the deceased princes, Gaius and Lucius, and Germanicus’ children. There is some speculation that the inscription was added by Claudius himself decades later, and that he originally did not appear at all.

When Augustus died in 14 CE, Claudius — then 23 — appealed to his uncle Tiberius to allow him to begin the cursus honorum. Tiberius, the new Emperor, responded by granting Claudius consular ornaments. Claudius requested office once more and was snubbed. Since the new Emperor was no more generous than the old, Claudius gave up hope of public office and retired to a scholarly, private life. Despite the disdain of the Imperial family, it seems that from very early on the general public respected Claudius. At Augustus’ death, the equites (knights), chose Claudius to head their delegation. When his house burned down, the Senate demanded it be rebuilt at public expense. They also requested that Claudius be allowed to debate in the Senate. Tiberius turned down both motions, but the sentiment remained.

During the period immediately after the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus, Claudius was pushed by some factions as a potential heir. This again suggests the political nature of his exclusion from public life rather than because of infirmities. However, as this was also the period during which the power and terror of the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, was at its peak, Claudius chose to downplay this possibility.

After the death of Tiberius, the new emperor Caligula (the son of Claudius’ brother Germanicus) recognized Claudius to be of some use. He appointed Claudius his co-consul in 37 in order to emphasize the memory of Caligula’s deceased father Germanicus. Despite this, Caligula relentlessly tormented his uncle: playing practical jokes, charging him enormous sums of money, humiliating him before the Senate, and the like. According to Cassius Dio, Claudius became very sickly and thin by the end of Caligula’s reign, possibly due to stress. Claudius himself claimed that he exaggerated his infirmities when Caligula was emperor as a form of self defense. If he were thought a bumbling idiot, he was less likely to be assassinated. Robert Graves emphasizes this notion in I, Claudius.

On 24th January 41, Caligula was assassinated in a broad-based conspiracy involving the Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea and several senators. There is no evidence that Claudius had a direct hand in the assassination, although it has been argued that he knew about the plot — particularly since he left the scene of the crime shortly before his nephew was murdered. However, after the deaths of Caligula’s wife and daughter, it became apparent that Cassius intended to go beyond the terms of the conspiracy and wipe out the Imperial family.

In the chaos following the murder, Claudius witnessed the German guard cut down several uninvolved noblemen, including many of his friends. He fled to the palace to hide. According to tradition, a Praetorian named Gratus found him hiding behind a curtain and suddenly declared him princeps. A section of the guard may have planned in advance to seek out Claudius, perhaps with his approval. They reassured him that they were not one of the battalions looking for revenge. He was spirited away to the Praetorian camp and put under their protection.

The Senate quickly met and began debating a change of government, but this eventually devolved into an argument over which of them would be the new princeps. When they heard of the Praetorians’ claim, they demanded that Claudius be delivered to them for approval, but he refused, sensing the danger that would come with complying. Some historians, particularly Josephus, claim that Claudius was directed in his actions by the Judaean king, Herod Agrippa. However, an earlier version of events, also by Josephus, downplays Herod’s role so it remains uncertain. Eventually the Senate was forced to give in and, in return, Claudius pardoned nearly all the assassins. At this point I will gloss over Claudius’ actions as emperor, and, instead, focus on his personal life, leading to my (short) treatise on mushrooms.

Claudius married four times, after two failed betrothals. The first betrothal was to his distant cousin Aemilia Lepida, but was broken for political reasons. The second was to Livia Medullina, which ended with Medullina’s sudden death on their wedding day.

His first wife, Plautia Urgulanill,a was the granddaughter of Livia’s confidant Urgulania. During their marriage she gave birth to a son, Claudius Drusus. Drusus died of asphyxiation in his early teens, shortly after becoming engaged to Junilla, the daughter of Sejanus. Claudius later divorced Urgulanilla for adultery and on suspicion of murdering her sister-in-law Apronia. When Urgulanilla gave birth after the divorce, Claudius repudiated the baby girl, Claudia, since the father was allegedly one of his own freedmen. This action made him later the target of criticism by his enemies.

Soon after (possibly in 28), Claudius married Aelia Paetina, a relative of Sejanus, if not Sejanus’s adopted sister. During their marriage, Claudius and Paetina had a daughter, Claudia Antonia. He later divorced her after the marriage became a political liability, although some historians suggest it may have been due to emotional and mental abuse by Paetina.

Messalina

Some years after divorcing Aelia Paetina, in 38 or early 39, Claudius married Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed and closely allied with Caligula’s circle. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, first named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’ accession. This marriage ended badly. Ancient historians allege that Messalina was a sex addict who was regularly unfaithful to Claudius — Tacitus states she went so far as to compete with a prostitute to see who could have the most sexual partners in a night — and manipulated his policies in order to amass wealth. In 48, Messalina married her lover Gaius Silius in a public ceremony while Claudius was at Ostia.

Sources disagree as to whether or not she divorced Claudius first, and whether the intention was to usurp the throne. Scramuzza, in his biography, suggests that Silius may have convinced Messalina that Claudius was doomed, and the union was her only hope of retaining rank and protecting her children. Tacitus suggests that Claudius’s ongoing term as Censor may have prevented him from noticing the affair before it reached such a critical point. Whatever the case, the result was the execution of Silius, Messalina, and most of her circle.

Agripinna crowning Nero

Ancient sources say that his freedmen put forward three candidates to be Claudius’ fourth wife, Caligula’s third wife Lollia Paulina, Claudius’s divorced second wife Aelia Paetina and Claudius’ niece Agrippina the Younger. According to Suetonius, Agrippina won out through her feminine charm. The truth is probably more political. The attempted coup d’état by Silius and Messalina had probably made Claudius realize the weakness of his position as a member of the Claudian but not the Julian family. This weakness was compounded by the fact that he did not yet have an obvious adult heir, Britannicus being just a boy.

Agrippina was one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus, and her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future Emperor Nero) was one of the last males of the Imperial family. Coup attempts could rally around the pair and Agrippina was already showing such ambition. It has been suggested that the Senate may have pushed for the marriage, to end the feud between the Julian and Claudian branches. This feud dated back to Agrippina’s mother’s actions against Tiberius after the death of her husband Germanicus (Claudius’s brother), actions which Tiberius had gladly punished. In any case, Claudius accepted Agrippina and later adopted the newly mature Nero as his son.

Nero was married to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, made joint heir with the underage Britannicus, and promoted. Augustus had similarly named his grandson Postumus Agrippa and his stepson Tiberius as joint heirs, and Tiberius had named Caligula joint heir with his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. Adoption of adults or near adults was an old tradition in Rome, when a suitable natural adult heir was unavailable as was the case during Britannicus’ minority. Claudius may have previously looked to adopt one of his sons-in-law to protect his own reign.

Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ disabilities in relatively good detail. His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well. He showed no physical deformity, however, and, as Suetonius notes, when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure with dignitas. When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this condition improved upon his accession to the throne. Claudius himself claimed that he had exaggerated his ailments to save his life.

As a person, ancient historians described Claudius as generous and lowbrow, a man who sometimes lunched with the plebeians. They also paint him as bloodthirsty and cruel, overly fond of gladiatorial combat and executions, and very quick to anger. Claudius himself acknowledged the latter trait, and apologized publicly for his temper. According to the ancient historians he was also overly trusting, and easily manipulated by his wives and freedmen. But at the same time they portray him as paranoid and apathetic, dull and easily confused.

The general consensus (not universal) of ancient historians was that Claudius was murdered by poison – possibly contained in mushrooms  – and died in the early hours of 13th October 54. Nearly all of them implicate his final wife, Agrippina, as the instigator. Agrippina and Claudius had become more combative in the months leading up to his death. This carried on to the point where Claudius openly lamented his bad wives, and began to comment on Britannicus’ approaching manhood with an eye towards restoring his status within the imperial family. Agrippina had motive in ensuring the succession of Nero before Britannicus could gain power.

Some ancient historians accuse either his taster Halotus, his doctor Xenophon, or the infamous poisoner Locusta of being the administrator of the fatal substance. Some say he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at dinner, and some have him recovering only to be poisoned again. Among contemporary sources, Seneca the Younger ascribed the emperor’s death to natural causes, while Josephus only spoke only of rumors on his poisoning. Some modern historians have cast doubt on whether Claudius was murdered or merely succumbed to illness or old age. The near universality of the accusations in ancient texts may or may not be indicative of the truth. It is easy, and beguiling, to attribute a “convenient” early death to murder – the stuff of conspiracy theories to this day.

The fact that poisoned mushrooms are often cited as the culprit leads me to discuss mushrooms. I don’t advocate eating poisoned mushrooms, of course, and you should be extremely cautious in picking wild mushrooms. When I was an active mushroom hunter in the woods of New York State, I once read that all true puffballs are edible. Good to know. They were plentiful near where I lived. But there is a catch. What is a “true” puffball? Some deadly amanitas mimic puffballs when they are small. You have to cut your specimen open to see whether it is solid throughout, or whether you can discern a cap developing inside. The puffballs I collected were not tasty anyway – they were like bland tofu (if you can imagine something blander than tofu).

When I was a boy in South Australia, mushrooms were not typically available in markets, but you could often find them (in fairy rings) in old pastures after heavy rain. My sister and I used to walk across a pasture to get to our sweet shop (known in our family as the egg lady’s), and once in a while we would find mushrooms to pick and take home. They were, perhaps, Agaricus arvensis, commonly known as the horse mushroom, based on what I remember of them. When we moved to England, commercially grown white mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) were about all you could get. They satisfied me well enough until I stumbled on other species. Here I have to reign in my enthusiasm.

In recent years a cornucopia of mushrooms has flooded the US and the UK, many from Asia. Italy has long been good at diversifying mushrooms for sale, but China is the king – bar none. China produces 65% of the world’s mushrooms, and Italy comes in second at a paltry 10%. Runners-up (i.e. all the rest), hover in the 1% and below bracket, although the US comes in at a respectable 5%. It’s not too difficult to find criminis and portobellos (actually the mature version of Agaricus bisporus), and increasingly you can find Asian varieties such as oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms, shiitakes and enokitakes – all commercially produced. When I lived in Kunming, in Yunnan province in China, I was in mushroom heaven. The city was surrounded by wooded highlands where 100s of wild mushroom species could be harvested, and locals came to the city all the time, selling their treasures on mats on the street. There was also a mushroom district in the city where there were dozens of restaurants where you could select whatever mushrooms you wanted from immense variety and have them made into a hotpot at your table.  Somewhat warily – because every year someone gets poisoned by wild mushrooms – I bought mushrooms on the street and typically stir fried them with eggs.

In Asia, dried mushrooms are much more expensive than fresh ones, and are sought after because of their intensity of flavor. When cooking stir fries or other quick dishes, I use fresh mushrooms, but for soups and stews I frequently use dried. Here’s a list of my favorite mushrooms:

Morel

Morchella, the true morels, is a genus of edible sac fungi. For centuries they resisted cultivation which meant that to cook with them you had to hunt in suitable locations and hope for the best. One of their particularly annoying growing habits is that they rarely grow in the same place twice. Since the 1980s, when extensive analysis of their growth cycle was undertaken, some morels can now by grown commercially, but wild ones are still best. The ecology of Morchella species is still not well understood. Many species appear to form symbiotic or endophytic relationships with trees, while others appear to act as saprotrophs (getting nutrients from decaying materials. Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta and related species) are more commonly found under deciduous trees rather than conifers, while black morels (Morchella elata and related species) are mostly found in coniferous forests, disturbed ground and recently burned areas. Because of their special taste I usually cook morels by themselves in a small amount of butter, or I pair them with eggs: scrambled or in an omelet.

Boletus

Boletus is a genus of mushrooms comprising over 100 species. Porcini (Boletus edulis) are one branch, and are commonly available in Europe and North America. Quite often, when I want to use mushrooms in a soup or stew I will use porcini if they are available. They are expensive (especially dried), but they have an incomparably rich flavor that adds greatly to sauces. Boletus auripes was quite common in woodlands near my house in New York, and I sometimes found really big ones. They grilled really nicely.

Chanterelle

I have never found chanterelles in the wild, but when I lived in the south of Italy 12 years ago, I could get them once in a while at the local market. I most often sautéed them in generous amounts of butter and served them with pasta (no cheese). They also make a great mushroom risotto. Their flavor compounds are complex, some water soluble, some fat soluble, so a sauté in butter with the rice followed by gentle poaching in a light stock to make the risotto makes a delicate and delightful creamy sauce.

Shiitake

These classic Japanese mushrooms have become enormously popular and widely available in recent years. Nowadays you can buy spore-impregnated logs and grow them yourself. I have done this although the results were not any different from store-bought. Shiitakes make up 25% of all mushroom cultivation worldwide. They have been cultivated in Japan since at least the 13th century, and are available year round in most Asian countries at reasonable prices. I pretty much always have some on hand here in Cambodia, and I use them in all the ways that I used white button mushrooms once upon a time – soups, stews, stir fries, omelets, etc.

Brown Beech Mushroom

These mushrooms have small caps and long fat stems growing in clusters. They are widely available in Asian markets, and I have them on hand most days. I made some today – plain sautéed – with a pork chop. I use them often in Asian soups, and also in curries. Their taste is more delicate than shiitakes but robust enough to handle long, slow cooking.

Hen-of-the-Woods

I first came across hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) in a supermarket in New York. It was some fluke, I imagine, but I had to buy it just to see what it was like. It is native to both Asia and North America, but it is much better known in Japanese and Chinese cuisine than American. It has dense, meaty fronds that grow in clusters. In Japan it is called maitake (by now you should have figured out that in Japanese /-take/ = mushroom), and it is known as “king of mushrooms.” I like to cook them the way I cook enokitake, that is, wrapped in foil with a knob of butter and baked. They also work well in soups where they do not have a lot of competing flavors, such as noodle soups.

In Asia I am never without mushrooms, and I use them almost every day. When I see a special one in a market I pounce – unless I have to get a bank loan to pay for one serving.

Dec 102017
 

Today is the birthday (1815) of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, known commonly as Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and the first computer programmer. Whether or not she actually wrote the algorithms published under her name is under dispute, so the title of “first computer programmer” may not be warranted. However, what is not questioned is her insight that computing machines could be used for more than working with numbers. She realized that if you used numbers to represent other things, such as letters of the alphabet, computing machines could be used for a host of applications beyond numerical calculation. In essence, her insight is the foundation of all modern digital computers, although neither she nor Babbage ever put the theory into practice.

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”), Lady Wentworth. All of Byron’s other children were born out of wedlock to other women. Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later. He died of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was 8 years old. Her mother remained bitter and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing her father’s perceived “insanity” (that is, his inveterate wandering, Romanticism, and inclination towards poetry). Despite this, Ada remained interested in Byron and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request. She was often ill in her childhood. Ada married William King in 1835. King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838, and Ada in turn became Countess of Lovelace.

Her educational and social desires brought her into contact with scientists such as Andrew Crosse, Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday and also with Charles Dickens. Lovelace described her approach as “poetical science” and herself as an “Analyst (& Metaphysician).” When she was a teenager, her mathematical talents led her to a long working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, also known as “the father of computers”, and in particular, Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/charles-babbage/ Lovelace first met him in June 1833, through their mutual friend, and her private tutor, Mary Somerville. Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on his ideas for an Analytical Engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes, simply called “Notes.” These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities. Her mindset of “poetical science” led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool. She died of uterine cancer in 1852 at the age of 36.

Throughout her life, Lovelace was strongly interested in scientific developments and fads of the day, including phrenology and mesmerism. After her work with Babbage, Lovelace continued to work on other projects. In 1844 she commented to a friend Woronzow Greig about her desire to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings (“a calculus of the nervous system”). She never achieved this, however. In part, her interest in the brain came from a long-running pre-occupation, inherited from her mother, about her ‘potential’ madness. As part of her research into this project, she visited the electrical engineer Andrew Crosse in 1844 to learn how to carry out electrical experiments. In the same year, she wrote a review of a paper by Baron Karl von Reichenbach, “Researches on Magnetism,” but this was not published and does not appear to have progressed past the first draft. In 1851, the year before her cancer struck, she wrote to her mother mentioning “certain productions” she was working on regarding the relation of mathematics and music.[53]

Lovelace first met Charles Babbage in June 1833 and later that month Babbage invited Lovelace to see the prototype for his Difference Engine. She became fascinated with the machine and visited Babbage as often as she could. Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s intellect and analytic skills. In 1843 he wrote to her:

Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing in short but the Enchantress of Number.

Some historians think that Babbage was calling Lovelace the “Enchantress of Number” which only goes to show how stupid some people are. I’d count them among Babbage’s “multitudinous Charlatans” for not being able to see that Babbage is calling numbers an enchantress, not Lovelace.

In 1840, Babbage was invited to give a seminar at the University of Turin about his Analytical Engine. Luigi Menabrea, a young Italian engineer, and the future Prime Minister of Italy wrote up Babbage’s lecture in French, and this transcript was subsequently published in the Bibliothèque universelle de Genève in October 1842. Babbage’s friend Charles Wheatstone commissioned Lovelace to translate Menabrea’s paper into English. She then augmented the paper with notes, which were added to the translation. Lovelace spent the better part of a year doing this, assisted with input from Babbage. These notes, which are more extensive than Menabrea’s paper, were then published in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initialism AAL.

Lovelace’s notes were labelled alphabetically from A to G. In note G, she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, and Ada Lovelace has often been cited as the first computer programmer for this reason. The engine was never completed so her program was never tested. Explaining the Analytical Engine’s function was a difficult task because even many other scientists of the day did not really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested in it. Lovelace’s notes even had to explain how the Analytical Engine differed from the original Difference Engine. Her work was well received at the time. Michael Faraday described himself as a supporter of her writing.

The notes are around three times longer than the article itself and include (in Section G[61]), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which could have run correctly had Babbage’s Analytical Engine been built. (Only his Difference Engine has been built, completed in London in 2002.) Based on this work Lovelace is now widely considered the first computer programmer and her method is considered the world’s first computer program.

Section G also contains Lovelace’s dismissal of artificial intelligence. She wrote that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” This objection has been the subject of much debate and rebuttal, for example, by Alan Turing in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”

Lovelace and Babbage had a minor falling out when the papers were published when he tried to leave his own statement (a criticism of the government’s treatment of his Engine) as an unsigned preface—which would imply that she had written that also. When Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs ruled that the statement should be signed, Babbage wrote to Lovelace asking her to withdraw the paper. This was the first that she knew he was leaving it unsigned, and she wrote back refusing to withdraw the paper. The historian Benjamin Woolley speculated that: “His actions suggested he had so enthusiastically sought Ada’s involvement, and so happily indulged her … because of her ‘celebrated name’.” Their friendship recovered, and they continued to correspond. On 12 August 1851, when she was dying of cancer, Lovelace wrote to him asking him to be her executor, though this letter did not give him the necessary legal authority. Part of the terrace at Worthy Manor, the Lovelace country estate, was known as Philosopher’s Walk, as it was there that Lovelace and Babbage were reputed to have walked while discussing mathematical principles.

In 1953, more than a century after her death, Ada Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and her notes as a description of a computer and software. In her notes, Lovelace emphasized the difference between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines, particularly its theoretical ability to be programmed to solve problems of any complexity. She realised the potential of the device extended far beyond mere number crunching. In her notes, she wrote:

[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

This analysis was an important development from previous ideas about the capabilities of computing devices and anticipated the implications of modern computing 100 years before they were realized. Walter Isaacson ascribes Lovelace’s insight regarding the application of computing to any process based on logical symbols to an observation about textiles: “When she saw some mechanical looms that used punchcards to direct the weaving of beautiful patterns, it reminded her of how Babbage’s engine used punched cards to make calculations.” Of course, those of us who were computing in the 1970s know the trials and tribulations of punchcards. Youngsters with smart PCs have no idea.

According to the historian of computing and Babbage specialist Doron Swade:

Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.

Though Lovelace is referred to as the first computer programmer, some biographers and historians of computing claim otherwise.

Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 article Difference and Analytical Engines:

All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a ‘bug’ in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so.

Bruce Collier, who later wrote a biography of Babbage, wrote in his 1970 Harvard University PhD thesis that Lovelace “made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in any way”. Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole consider it “incorrect” to regard Lovelace as the first computer programmer, since Babbage wrote the initial programs for his Analytical Engine, although the majority were never published. Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace’s notes. Dorothy K. Stein regards Lovelace’s notes as “more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author, the political purposes of the inventor, and, above all, of the social and cultural context in which it was written, than a blueprint for a scientific development.”

But . . . in Idea Makers, Stephen Wolfram defends Lovelace’s contributions. While acknowledging that Babbage wrote several unpublished algorithms for the Analytical Engine prior to Lovelace’s notes, Wolfram argues that “there’s nothing as sophisticated—or as clean—as Ada’s computation of the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage certainly helped and commented on Ada’s work, but she was definitely the driver of it.” Wolfram then suggests that Lovelace’s main achievement was to distill from Babbage’s correspondence “a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did.”

Add to this statement her obviously prescient insight that “computing machines” could go far beyond algorithms for number crunching and you have the measure of her contribution to modern computer science.

This website https://www.indianic.com/blog/general/the-best-food-for-programmers.html gives a list of foods that are good for computer programmers given that they live largely sedentary lives, and don’t get out much. One of the chief needs, apparently, is a diet rich in vitamin D, presumably because programmers don’t see the sun very often !!. Egg yolks and some mushrooms are rich in vitamin D, so here’s a recipe from Lovelace’s era that fits the bill.  It is from Houlston’s Housekeeper’s assistant; or, Complete family cook. Containing directions for marketing; also, instructions for preparing soups, broths, gravies, and sauces; likewise for dressing fish, butcher’s meat, poultry, game, &c. (1828)

Eggs with Onions and Mushrooms

Boil the eggs hard, take out the yolks entire, and cut the whites in slips, with some onions and mushrooms. Fry the onions and mushrooms, put in the whites, and turn them about a little; then pour off the fat, if there be any; flour the onions, &c. and put to them a little good gravy. Boil this up, put in the yolks of the eggs, and add a little pepper and salt; then let the whole simmer for about a minute, and serve it up.

What this amounts to is a dish of boiled egg yolks in a mushroom and onion gravy containing sliced egg whites.  Not that complicated, and would make a nice brunch dish if you are into that sort of thing.

Jul 202016
 

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Today is the birthday (1304) of Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, Tuscan scholar and poet, and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, in fact. In the 16th century, Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works, as well as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, and, to a lesser extent, Dante Alighieri. Petrarch was later endorsed as a model for Italian style by the Accademia della Crusca. Petrarch’s sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry. He is also known for being the first to develop the concept of the Middle Ages as “Dark Ages.”

Petrarch was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1304. He was the son of Ser Petracco and his wife Eletta Canigiani. His given name was Francesco Petracco. The name was Latinized to Petrarca. Petrarch’s younger brother was born in Incisa in Val d’Arno in 1307. Dante was a friend of his father. Petrarch spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence. He spent much of his early life at Avignon and nearby Carpentras, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 to begin the Avignon Papacy. He studied law at the University of Montpellier (1316–20) and Bologna (1320–23) with a lifelong friend and schoolmate, Guido Sette. Because his father was in the profession of law he insisted that Petrarch and his brother study law also. Petrarch however was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered these seven years wasted. Additionally he proclaimed that through legal manipulation his guardians robbed him of his small property inheritance in Florence, which only reinforced his dislike for the legal system. He protested, “I couldn’t face making a merchandise of my mind”– he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice.

Petrarch was a prolific letter writer and counted Boccaccio among his notable friends to whom he wrote often. After the death of their parents, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo went back to Avignon in 1326, where he worked in numerous clerical offices. This work gave him time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work, Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity. On April 8, 1341, he became the first poet laureate since antiquity and was crowned by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.

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He traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and has been called “the first tourist” because he traveled just for pleasure, which was the basic reason he climbed Mont Ventoux. During his travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. He encouraged and advised Leontius Pilatus’s translation of Homer from a manuscript purchased by Boccaccio, although he was severely critical of the result. Petrarch had acquired a copy, which he did not entrust to Leontius, but he knew no Greek; Homer, Petrarch said, “was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer.” In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero’s letters not previously known to have existed, the collection ad Atticum. Henceforth he disdained the scholarship of what we now call the Middle Ages, coining the term “Dark Ages.”

Petrarch recounts that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,912 meters (6,273 ft)), which he undertook for recreation rather than necessity. The exploit is described in a celebrated letter addressed to his friend and confessor, the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, composed some time after the fact. In it Petrarch claimed to have been inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s ascent of Mount Haemo and that an old peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before, and warned him against attempting to do so. The 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt noted that Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and ascents accomplished during the Middle Ages have been recorded, including that of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne.

Scholars note that Petrarch’s letter to Dionigi displays a strikingly “modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery and is still often cited in books and journals devoted to the sport of mountaineering. In Petrarch, this attitude is coupled with an aspiration for a virtuous Christian life, and on reaching the summit, he took from his pocket a volume by his spiritual mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him. As the book fell open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.

Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation.

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Petrarch spent the later part of his life journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat. His career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he is believed to have fathered two children by a woman or women unknown to posterity. A son, Giovanni, was born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, was born in 1343. Both he later legitimized.

Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. In the same year Petrarch was named canon in Monselice near Padua. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch’s will) that same year. In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta (the same name as Petrarch’s mother), they joined Petrarch in Venice to flee the plague then ravaging parts of Europe. A second grandchild, Francesco, was born in 1366, but died before his second birthday. Francesca and her family lived with Petrarch in Venice for five years from 1362 to 1367 at Palazzo Molina; although Petrarch continued to travel in those years. Between 1361 and 1369 the younger Boccaccio paid the older Petrarch two visits:  first in Venice, second in Padua.

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About 1368 Petrarch and his daughter Francesca (with her family) moved to the small town of Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in his house in Arquà on July 19, 1374 – one day short of his seventieth birthday. The house hosts now a permanent exhibition of Petrarch’s works and curiosities

Petrarch’s will (dated April 4, 1370) leaves 50 florins to Boccaccio “to buy a warm winter dressing gown”; various legacies (a horse, a silver cup, a lute, a Madonna) to his brother and his friends; his house in Vaucluse to its caretaker; for his soul, and for the poor; and the bulk of his estate to his son-in-law, Francescuolo da Brossano, who is to give half of it to “the person to whom, as he knows, I wish it to go”; presumably his daughter, Francesca, Brossano’s wife. The will mentions neither the property in Arquà nor his library; Petrarch’s library of notable manuscripts was already promised to Venice, in exchange for the Palazzo Molina. This arrangement was probably cancelled when he moved to Padua, the enemy of Venice, in 1368. The library was seized by the lords of Padua, and his books and manuscripts are now widely scattered over Europe.

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Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry, notably the Canzoniere (“Songbook”) and the Trionfi (“Triumphs”). However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in Latin. His Latin writings include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are Secretum Meum (“My Secret”), an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; De Viris Illustribus (“On Famous Men”), a series of moral biographies; Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; De Otio Religiosorum (“On Religious Leisure”); De Vita Solitaria (“On the Solitary Life”); De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (“Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul”), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; Itinerarium (“Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land”); invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the Carmen Bucolicum, a collection of 12 pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic Africa. He also translated seven psalms, a collection known as the Penitential Psalms.

In addition, Petrarch published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead “friends” from history such as Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca were his literary models. Most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today, but several of his works are available in English translations. Petrarch broke radically with the much-praised Dante and his Divina Commedia. In spite of the metaphysical subject, the Commedia is deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of turn-of-the-century Florence. Petrarch confessed to Boccaccio that he had never read the Commedia.  Probably this was untrue but shows that Petrarch wanted to distance himself from Dante.

Petrarch polished (some say “perfected”) the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante widely used in his Vita nuova to popularise the new courtly love of the Dolce Stil Novo. It was later copied (with suitable changes) by Shakespeare and others outside of Italy.

Petrarch was highly introspective and, as such, shaped the nascent humanist movement a great deal. Many of the internal conflicts and musings expressed in his writings were seized upon by Renaissance humanist philosophers and argued over continually for the next 200 years. For example, Petrarch struggled with the proper relation between the active and contemplative life, and tended to emphasize the importance of solitude and study. In a clear disagreement with Dante, in 1346 Petrarch argued in his De vita solitaria that Pope Celestine V’s refusal of the papacy in 1294 was as a virtuous example of solitary life. Later the politician and thinker Leonardo Bruni argued for the active life, or “civic humanism.”

I’m very much on Petrarch’s side in this debate. I live alone and spend my days in writing and contemplation. This life suits me. Of course I venture out to engage with the world when need be, but I am happiest alone.

Here’s a 14th-century Italian recipe for “mountain mushrooms” from Libro di cucina del secolo XIV.

Fungi di Monte

Toglie fungi di monte, e lessali: e gittatene via l’acquaa, mettili poi a friggere con cipolla tritata minuto, o con bianco di porro, spezie e sale e dà a mangiare.

[Take mountain mushrooms and boil them. Discard the water then fry the mushrooms with finely sliced onion, or the white of a leek, spices, and salt. Then serve.]

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Simplicity itself. I used fresh porcini to make this dish because I had some left over from a trip to the market. I used leeks because I love them. The spices are the only challenge. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves were common in 14th-century Italy, but all of them are a little overpowering for me for use with mushrooms that have a strong, but delicate, flavor. If you are using common agarics (white commercial mushrooms), add what you want.

There is no need to boil the mushrooms first. Just roughly slice them and the leeks. Sauté them together over high heat in butter (preferably) or extra virgin olive oil. All I added was a few grinds of black pepper and served them over bread fried in olive oil. Great breakfast.

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Apr 192016
 

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On this date in 1943, Albert Hofmann, creator of synthetic lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)  performed a self-experiment to determine the true effects of LSD, intentionally ingesting 0.25 milligrams (250 micrograms) of the substance, an amount he predicted to be a threshold dose (an actual threshold dose is 20 micrograms). Less than an hour later, Hofmann experienced sudden and intense changes in perception. He asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home and, as use of motor vehicles was prohibited because of wartime restrictions, they had to make the journey on a bicycle. On the way, Hoffman’s condition rapidly deteriorated as he struggled with feelings of anxiety, alternating in his beliefs that the next-door neighbor was a malevolent witch, that he was going insane, and that the LSD had poisoned him. When the house doctor arrived, however, he could detect no physical abnormalities, save for a pair of incredibly dilated pupils. Hofmann was reassured, and soon his terror began to give way to a sense of good fortune and enjoyment, as he later wrote:

Little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

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The events of this first LSD trip, now known as “Bicycle Day”, after the bicycle ride home, proved to Hofmann that he had indeed made a significant discovery: a psychoactive substance with extraordinary potency, capable of causing significant shifts of consciousness in incredibly low doses. Hofmann foresaw the drug as a powerful psychiatric tool; because of its intense and introspective nature, he couldn’t imagine anyone using it recreationally. Bicycle Day is increasingly observed in psychedelic communities as a day to celebrate the discovery of LSD.

The celebration of Bicycle Day originated in DeKalb, Illinois, in 1985, when Thomas B. Roberts, then a professor at Northern Illinois University, invented the name “Bicycle Day” when he founded the first Bicycle Day celebration at his home. Several years later, he sent an announcement made by one of his students to friends and Internet lists, thus propagating the idea and the celebration. His original intent was to commemorate Hofmann’s original, accidental exposure on April 16th, but that date fell midweek and was not a good time for the party, so he chose the 19th to honor Hofmann’s first intentional exposure.

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Albert Hofmann was born in Switzerland and joined the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories, located in Basel as a co-worker with professor Arthur Stoll, founder and director of the pharmaceutical department. He began studying the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot as part of a program to purify and synthesize active constituents for use as pharmaceuticals. His main contribution was to elucidate the chemical structure of the common nucleus of Scilla glycosides (an active principle of Mediterranean Squill). While researching lysergic acid derivatives, Hofmann first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. The main intention of the synthesis was to obtain a respiratory and circulatory stimulant (an analeptic). It was set aside for five years, until April 16, 1943, when Hofmann decided to take a second look at it. While re-synthesizing LSD, he accidentally absorbed a small amount of the drug through his fingertips (and may have accidentally touched his eye) and discovered its powerful effects. He described what he felt as being:

 … affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away.

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Beginning in the 1950s, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began a research program code named Project MKULTRA. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions, usually without the subjects’ knowledge. The project was revealed in the US congressional Rockefeller Commission report in 1975.

In 1963, the Sandoz patents expired on LSD. Several figures, including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Al Hubbard, began to advocate the use of LSD. LSD became central to the counterculture of the 1960s. In the early 1960s the use of LSD and other hallucinogens was advocated by new proponents of consciousness expansion such as Leary, Huxley, Alan Watts and Arthur Koestler, which profoundly influenced the thinking of the new generation.

On October 24, 1968, possession of LSD was made illegal in the United States. The last FDA approved study of LSD in patients ended in 1980, while a study in healthy volunteers was made in the late 1980s. Legally approved and regulated psychiatric use of LSD continued in Switzerland until 1993.

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I grew up in the 1960s so acid and psychedelic counterculture is old hat for me. By just in case you are too young to remember those crazy days I’ll give a brief synopsis. By the mid-1960s, the psychedelic lifestyle had already developed in youth countercultures in California, particularly in San Francisco, with the first major underground LSD factory established by Owsley Stanley. From 1964 the Merry Pranksters, a loose group that developed around novelist Ken Kesey, sponsored the Acid Tests, a series of events primarily staged in or near San Francisco, involving the taking of LSD (supplied by Stanley), accompanied by light shows, film projection and discordant, improvised music known as the psychedelic symphony. The Pranksters helped popularize LSD use, through their road trips across America in a psychedelically-decorated converted school bus, which involved distributing the drug and meeting with major figures of the beat movement, and through publications about their activities such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) – a good read. In both music and art, the influence on LSD was soon being more widely seen and heard thanks to the bands that participated in the Acid Tests and related events, including The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and through the dazzling and wildly inventive poster and album art of San Francisco-based artists like Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean, Stanley Mouse & Alton Kelley, and Wes Wilson.

A similar and connected nexus of LSD use in the creative arts developed around the same time in London. A key figure in this phenomenon in the UK was British academic Michael Hollingshead, who first tried LSD in the US in 1961 while he was the Executive Secretary for the Institute of British-American Cultural Exchange. After being given a large quantity of pure Sandoz LSD (which was still legal at the time) and experiencing his first trip, Hollingshead contacted Aldous Huxley, who suggested that he get in touch with Harvard academic Timothy Leary, and over the next few years, in concert with Leary and Richard Alpert, Hollingshead played a major role in their famous LSD research at Millbrook before moving to New York City, where he conducted his own LSD experiments. In 1965 Hollingshead returned to the UK and founded the World Psychedelic Center in Chelsea in London.

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Among the many famous people in the UK that Hollingshead is reputed to have introduced to LSD are artist and Hipgnosis founder Storm Thorgerson, and musicians Donovan, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison. Although establishment concern about the new drug led to it being declared illegal by the Home Secretary in 1966, LSD was soon being used widely in the upper echelons of the British art and music scene, including members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, The Small Faces, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and others, and the products of these experiences were soon being both heard and seen by the public with singles like The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” and LPs like The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Cream’s Disraeli Gears, which featured music that showed the obvious influence of the musicians’ recent psychedelic excursions, and which were packaged in elaborately-designed album covers that featured vividly-coloured psychedelic artwork by artists like Peter Blake, Martin Sharp, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Nigel Waymouth and Michael English) and art/music collective “The Fool.” Memories !!!

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In the 1960s, and ever since, when LSD became illegal, people have tried to promote natural (legal) foods that can produce hallucinations. Most mushrooms with hallucinogenic qualities are banned in the West, but I know of a few that can be legally obtained in China. In fact I’ve seen a number sold on the streets in cities, but never bought any because the sale is largely unregulated and people die annually from poisonous mushrooms. I did buy quite a few funky looking mushrooms for culinary purposes, however, and lived to tell the tale.

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Heavy doses of very hot foods created with powerful chile peppers are also known to induce hallucinations, though not reliably. I’m a big fan of intense curries and have never experienced anything other than tongue-searing heat, pouring sweat, and the feeling that my eyeballs were falling out.  It is also said that large doses of ground fresh nutmeg (2 tablespoons or more) can be hallucinogenic. As with chiles and other home experiments I DO NOT RECOMMEND this. You’re more likely to get nauseous than anything else, and there may be physical damage.

It has been known for centuries that Sarpa salpa, known commonly as the salema, salema porgy, cow bream or goldline, a species of sea bream, recognizable by the golden stripes that run down the length of its body, can cause hallucinations when eaten. It is found in the East Atlantic, as well as the Mediterranean, ranging from the Bay of Biscay to South Africa. It has occasionally been found as far north as Great Britain. It is quite common and found from near the surface to a depth of 70 m (230 ft). Males are typically 15 to 30 cm (6–12 in) in length, while females are usually 31 to 45 cm (12–18 in).

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Sarpa salpa became widely known recently for its psychoactivity following articles published in 2006 (and disseminated widely), when two men ingested it at a Mediterranean restaurant and began to experience auditory and visual hallucinogenic effects. These hallucinations, obviously unexpected, were reported to have occurred minutes after the fish was ingested and had a total duration of 36 hours. Salema is, in fact, often served as a dish at seafood restaurants in the Mediterranean area without these effects. It is believed that this and other Mediterranean fish sometimes ingest a particular algae or phytoplankton which renders it hallucinogenic. These effects have been reported sporadically all the way from classical times by Greeks and Arabs – often after eating the head.

Varieties of sea bream are quite readily available and can be prepared in any number of ways – poached, fried, baked, grilled, etc. I’ve always been a big fan of oven baked whole fish because there’s nothing much to it, the fish is tasty, and the results are healthy.

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Make sure the fish is scaled and gutted. Place it on a well greased baking tray, fill the cavity with lemon slices, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and bake in a pre-heated oven at 500°F (or hotter) until the skin is browned and the meat is cooked through – between 20 and 30 minutes. Serve on a bed of boiled new potatoes (black olives add a spark), with a green salad or poached green vegetables. I usually go with spinach or asparagus.

Jul 282015
 

NPG P1825; Beatrix Potter (Mrs Heelis) by Charles King

Today is the birthday (1866) of Helen Beatrix Potter, English author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which celebrated the British landscape and country life. Potter was born into a wealthy Unitarian family. She and her younger brother Walter Bertram (1872–1918) grew up with few friends outside their large extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature, and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. Summer holidays were spent away from London, in Scotland and in the English Lake District where Beatrix developed a love of the natural world which was the subject of her painting from an early age.

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She was educated by private governesses until she was 18. Her study of languages, literature, science, and history was broad and she was an eager student. Her artistic talents were recognized early. She enjoyed private art lessons and developed her own style, favoring watercolor. She illustrated insects, fossils, archaeological artifacts, and fungi, along with her drawings of her animals, real and imagined.

In the 1890s, her mycological illustrations and research into the reproduction of fungus spores generated interest from the scientific establishment. Following some success illustrating cards and booklets, Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit, publishing it first privately in 1901, and a year later as a small, three-color illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. She became unofficially engaged to her editor Norman Warne in 1905, despite the disapproval of her parents, but he died suddenly a month later of leukemia.

With the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village, then in Lancashire, in the English Lake District near Windermere, in 1905. Over the following decades, she bought additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913, at the age of 47, she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead.

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Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write and illustrate, and to design spin-off merchandise based on her children’s books for Warne, until the duties of land management and her diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue.

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Potter published over 23 books; the best known are those written between 1902 and 1922. She died of pneumonia and heart disease on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, leaving almost all her property to the National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now makes up the Lake District National Park.

Often I try to dig a little deeper into lesser known aspects of the subject I am posting on, so I am going to leave Peter Rabbit behind and focus a bit on Potter’s interest in mycology. Few people know that she was quite the expert on fungi and well ahead of some of the leaders in the field in her day even though she was an amateur. Independently of German and English botanists she succeeded in germinating spores of a number of species. With the assistance of her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe FRS, a renowned chemist, she got an introduction to George Massee, the mycologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Massee tried to dismiss her investigations, but in communicating with him she realized that her work was more advanced than his in the area of germination.

Her uncle suggested that she write a paper on her findings to present to the botanists at Kew, but she was hesitant as seen in her letter to William Thistleton-Dyer, director of Kew gardens:

I do not quite like to give the paper to Mr Massee because I am afraid I have rather contradicted him. Uncle Harry is satisfied with my way of working but we wish very much that someone would take it up at Kew to try it, if they do not believe my drawings. Mr Massee took objection to my slides, but the things exist, and will be all done by the Germans.

I am not sure whether it was her natural shyness, or her unwillingness to stand up – an amateur, and a woman to boot – before a group of skeptical men, but she backed out of presenting her work when offered the chance in December 1896. She did, however, see Thistleton-Dyer later, who proved to be patronizing and dismissive, and then visited Massee whom she said “had come round altogether and was prepared to believe my new thing.” Subsequently he was most supportive.

Her uncle then arranged to have her findings presented to the Linnean Society of London. He helped her with her writing and Potter wrote in her journal that he showed “a real interest in the business, and an immense amount of trouble in trying to understand the botanical part, and showing how to mend my Paper.” In February 1897 she wrote:

I have grown between 40 and 50 sorts of spore, but I think I shall send in only A. velutipes, which I have grown twice and Mr Massee has also grown according to my direction at Kew … but unless I can get a good slide actually sprouting it seems useless to send it to the Linnaean

A. velutipes is now designated as Flammulina velutipes but in Potter’s time went by the name Agaricus velutipes. (Agaricus was then used as the genus for mushrooms).

Massee submitted the paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”, to the Linnean Society, which was a men-only affair, and was read on 1 April 1897 was the reading of the paper the word Agaricineae being another term for mushrooms. No one knows what the response to the paper was or where it ended up. There are no copies extant either in the Linnean’s archives or Potter’s private papers. No one even knows what the paper reported although there is still much speculation. Here is a gallery of Potter’s watercolors of fungi.

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It would seem natural to present a recipe on mushrooms, of which I have a plethora. Yunnan, where I now live, is paradise for the mushroom cook, especially at this time of year. There are literally hundreds of types of wild and domesticated mushrooms available in local markets. Not a day goes by without me adding one or more kinds of mushroom to my dishes. No doubt Potter ate them too, although she does not mention them as food. She does, however, say that she was partial to hearty vegetable soups made with ingredients from her kitchen garden. In the end, though, I have settled on a classic Lake District lamb dish as a tribute to her labors as a sheep breeder.

The Lake District is noted for many delectable foods, some of which are hard to find outside the region. There is Kendal Mint Cake, Cumberland sausage, Grasmere gingerbread, cheeses galore, plus the famed Cumberland sauce. Here is Herdwick lamb cobbler which ought to be made with Herdwick lamb, (which Potter bred). The “cobbler” bit comes from the scones on top (please try to pronounce it /skonn/). I am dismayed to find I have yet to provide a recipes for scones: I will, eventually.

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Herdwick Lamb Cobbler

2 lb shoulder of lamb, diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
salt and pepper
1 large leek, chopped
1 small turnip, peeled and diced
1 celeriac, peeled and diced
lamb or veal stock
1 oz pearl barley (optional)
2 oz plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
oil for frying
8 scones

Instructions

Gently sauté the herbs and vegetables in a deep, heavy skillet in a little vegetable oil until they have softened a little. Add them to a heavy-bottomed cooking pot.

Roll the lamb in the seasoned flour and brown on all sides. Add to the vegetables. Add the barley (if used). Cover with stock, bring to a gentle simmer, partly cover, and cook for 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender. Watch the pot now and again, giving it a stir to avoid sticking, and topping with stock if it gets too dry. In the end the sauce should be quite thick.

Turn the meat and vegetables into an oven-proof casserole, dot with whole or halved scones and bake in a medium oven for about 15 minutes.

Serve with a pint of Jennings bitter (or any of the beers from Cumbria’s 30 breweries).

Oct 012014
 

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Given that I am now living in China for a while (Kunming, Yunnan Province), studying Mandarin Chinese, this is the perfect day for a new post. I won’t be able to keep it up, but my faithful readers deserve something fresh. However, you can also go back to last year’s post as well and read about World Vegetarian Day. You guessed it; we will have a vegetarian Chinese dish today.

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-vegetarian-day/

The National Day of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated every year on October 1. It is a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was founded on October 1, 1949 with a ceremony at Tiananmen Square. The Central People’s Government passed the Resolution on the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on December 2, 1949 and declared that October 1 is the National Day.

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The National Day marks the start of one of the two Golden Weeks in the PRC. A Golden Week is a period of 3 days of paid leave for workers and the surrounding weekends are re-arranged so that workers in Chinese companies always have seven continuous days of holiday. These national holidays were first started by the government for the PRC’s National Day in 1999 and are primarily intended to help expand the domestic tourism market and improve the national standard of living, as well as allowing people to make long-distance family visits. The Golden Weeks are consequently periods of greatly heightened travel activity.  I’m very excited to be in the middle of it and especially look forward to the fireworks.

The National Day is celebrated throughout mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau with a variety of government-organized festivities, including fireworks and concerts. Public places, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are decorated in a festive theme. Portraits of revered leaders, such as Mao Zedong, are publicly displayed.

Naturally, food plays a big part in the festivities. Until the late 1970’s Chinese food was largely unknown to Westerners except for a few Cantonese dishes that were pallid versions of the originals – and still very common in Chinese restaurants in the West. But, magically, a few regional cuisines, such as Szechuan, began showing up, so that people outside of China could get a glimpse of the immense variety there was to be had. A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese, Shandong, Jiangsu (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Szechuan. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of ingredients, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle. However, it is also important to realize that just as there are French restaurants in Germany, you will find Szechuan restaurants in Beijing. All provinces feature the dishes of the others, but local styles predominate. Given that I am now living in Yunnan, it seems right to focus on that province, especially because the cuisine is little known outside of China.

Yunnan is in the extreme southwest of China and borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. As such it is ethnically diverse, and this fact is reflected in cooking styles. Yunnan cuisine is vastly varied, and it is difficult to make generalizations. Many Yunnan dishes are quite spicy, and mushrooms are featured prominently. Flowers, ferns, algae and insects may also be eaten. Here’s a little gallery from a recent trip to the local food market in Kunming showing some of the diversity of products, including live bee larvae.

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Two of the province’s most famous products are the renowned pu-erh tea which was traditionally grown in Ning’er; as well as Xuanwei ham, which is often used to flavor stewed and braised foods in Chinese cuisine and for making the stocks and broths of many Chinese soups. The most famous dish is Guo Qiao Mi Xian or Crossing the Bridge Noodles. (You can find the legend of the origin of the dish and a recipe here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/beijing-opera/ )The dish is served with a large bowl of boiling hot broth and the soup ingredients separate. The soup ingredients are served on a cutting board or plate and include raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats. Common ingredients include thin slices of ham, chunks of chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Once added into the broth, it cooks quickly with a layer of chicken fat and oil glistening on top. The soup takes a few minutes to cook, and it is then spooned out into small bowls.

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The noodle used in this and other soups is mi xian. The processing of mi xian in Yunnan is unique, involving a fermentation process. It is made from non-glutinous rice and is typically sold fresh rather than dried. At some street stalls in Kunming you can watch noodle makers at work as I did just yesterday.

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Fresh mi xian smells fragrant, different from other kinds of rice noodle in China and Asia. Mi xian is served in various ways, typically either in broth or stir-fried. When mi xian is served in broth in Yunnan restaurants, it is common for a range of individual condiments to be presented for the customer to add to their bowl themselves. Condiments typically include chile pepper (diced fresh chlle plus at least one or two prepared chile pastes, often mixed with oil), diced fresh chile, cilantro, garlic, pepper (both regular pepper and powdered or whole Szechuan pepper), salt, spring onion, soy sauce, tomato, vinegar and zhe’ergen (a spicy root common to southwestern China). At noodle stands in markets, customers are given bowls and can pick the ingredients they want from a huge array of meats and vegetables. These are then added to boiling broth with noodles. Without doubt, soup noodles in general are my favorite food and Yunnan style is hard to beat. I am really in my element here.

Adzuki beans, known locally as hong dou, have been used in Yunnan cooking for millennia. Here is a modified Yunnan recipe for stir fried adzuki beans and mushrooms. Obviously you cannot get Yunnan mushrooms (he said with a touch of glee) but do the best that you can. I’ve found that quite often I could get a variety of Chinese mushrooms in barrio chino in Buenos Aires, so I am sure you can find something appropriate if you hunt around Asian markets.

Stir Fried Adzuki Beans and Mushrooms

Ingredients:

1 cup dried azuki beans, soaked in water overnight and drained
4 tbps oil
4 green onions (both white and green parts) sliced into two centimeter pieces
1 red or green bell pepper, diced into two centimeter chunks
2 fresh red or green chiles, seeded and diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
15 assorted mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
½ tsp Szechuan pepper (or to taste)
2 tbps sugar

Instructions:

Place the pre-soaked beans in a saucepan and cover with several inches of fresh water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the beans are tender and their skins start to separate. My usual test is to pick out a spoonful of beans and blow on them. If the skins split, they are ready. Drain the water off, and then crush some of the beans lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large wok over a medium high flame. Add the green onions, chiles, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and peppers, and stir-fry for two more minutes until the mushrooms and peppers begin to soften.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the beans. Stir in the soy sauce, sesame oil, Szechuan pepper, and sugar. Simmer until the liquid has reduced enough to make the mixture fairly dry. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Serves 4

Sep 082013
 

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Today is the birthday (1841) of Antonín Leopold Dvořák, Czech musician and composer. In some senses it might be more historically accurate to call him a Bohemian composer since he was born and lived in Bohemia, which later became part of Czechoslovakia, and is now the core of the Czech republic.  But maybe, too, this is a quibble.  His first language was Czech, and I doubt that he made a distinction between being Czech and being Bohemian. The first is an ethnic designation, the second, political.  I’ll get into this nationalist stuff in a bit.  It’s important. Rather than give a sketch of his whole life and work, I am going to focus on two themes: his boyhood and youth, and his status as a nationalist composer. The rest you can discover for yourself.

Dvo?ák was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, which was then in Bohemia, a state in the greater Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His father František was an innkeeper and butcher, who also played zither professionally. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Josef Zden?k, the bailiff of Prince Lobkowitz. From infancy Dvo?ák heard traditional music played by his father and by bands his father hired to play on Saturday nights for dances at the inn. It’s likely that his father’s repertoire was ethnically quite diverse because he learnt to play zither as a young man while traveling through Hungary.

His first music teacher was the church music director, who was also the one and only teacher of the elementary school there. This man, Josef Spic (or Spitz) was a typical example of the Czech “kantor,” a public school teacher and musician. Spic was also a competent composer in the style of Mozart and some of his works survive, although they were never performed.  He taught Dvo?ák to play the violin and to sing, and from age 8 he sang in the local church choir.

It is well known that Dvořák had a great passion for trains and train timetables, and would sometimes go to stations just to see the trains arrive and depart.  It’s possible that this fascination developed when he was a young boy when the rail line and station at Nelahozeves were being built, a huge event for the whole town. There is a tunnel through the cliff just to the south of the town, and the workers who built it were from Italy. They were experienced in building tunnels through the Alps and so were contracted to build this one. There is a report that after work they liked to gather around the Dvořák butcher shop and sing their traditional Italian songs, which the young boy would have heard.

Dvořák’s father was pleased with his son’s interest in music and so at the age of 13 he sent him to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenek in order to get better training and to learn German, which was important for advancement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvořák took organ, piano, and violin lessons from his German language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught him music theory and introduced him to the composers of the time. Apparently Dvořák had great respect for his teacher even though he had a violent temper.

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Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons with Franz Hanke in the town of Ceská Kamenice, but they were cut short because money was tight at home and he had to return to help his father. Claims that he apprenticed as a butcher at this time are untrue, but he did help with the business. At the age of 16, the family business was earning enough that Dvořák’s father’s consented to him becoming a professional musician provided he could build a career as an organist. So he went to Prague to study at the city’s Organ School. During most of his studies he worked as a musician to support himself.

In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra.  In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share the rent of an apartment located in Prague’s Žižkov district with five other people, including violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Cech, who later became a singer. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Cermáková, a rising actress. However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying into the nobility. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Cermáková. They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy. By all accounts it was a happy marriage despite its seemingly odd beginnings.

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Dvořák was also composing while performing and giving piano lessons. He produced his String Quintet in A Minor in 1861 and the 1st String Quartet in1862. In the early 1860s, he also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. For ten years he composed incessantly with almost no notice or public performances. His first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání (October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). Then in 1873 his cantata, Hymnus, brought him to public attention. The point I want you to take from this is that Dvořák struggled in obscurity and poverty for more than 13 years to achieve recognition, and during that period he was intensely self critical. The fame he garnered subsequently was founded on the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” – something I greatly admire.

In the following decades Dvořák went from success to success with an increasingly international following.  He was seen, in large measure, as a nationalist composer because of his frequent use of Bohemian and Moravian traditional dance and song melodies in his compositions.  As such he was part of a large and growing group of European composers thought of as embodying the ethos of their respective ethnic origins. The reason for this movement lies within the nationalist politics of 19th century Europe.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna (1815) carved Europe into a series of states whose purpose was to create a balance of power that would prevent further wars by making it impossible for one nation to gain outright military supremacy.  I suppose the aim was laudable, but the methods were questionable, and ultimately it was a dismal failure.  To create large power blocs, hundreds of ethnic groups were folded into larger entities such as Austria-Hungary.  Almost immediately these groups sought autonomy, and the history of 19th century Europe is, by and large, the history of the struggle for these groups to break away from outside governance.  In 1848, when Dvořák was 7, almost all of Europe erupted in ethnic revolution, and these tensions continued all of his life.  His music was received as a contribution to the establishment of Czech/Bohemian national identity.

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There is no question that the notion of creating a national “voice” was dear to Dvořák’s heart, but it was not confined to Bohemia: his interests were global.  From 1892 to 1895, Dvo?ák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber; it was located at 126–128 East 17th Street (the building has since been demolished if you had plans to go looking).

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One of Dvořák’s goals in the United States was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1892, he wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of “American” music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of “American” music. It was in New York that Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, his pupil at the time and one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional spirituals. He wrote, “Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the New World Symphony.”

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In the winter and spring of 1893 Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, “From the New World,” which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl and was wildly successful from the beginning.  It is undoubtedly his most popularly known work. Its Largo has been used in a variety of contexts from songs to movie scores.  I don’t really want to generate a debate as to whether the New World is genuinely “American” music.  Music historians, with nothing better to do, argue even now over whether it is more “American” or more “Bohemian.” Such debates bore me.  What does engage my interest is the fact that for the second half of the 19th century serious music was taken as a legitimate vehicle for social and political unification. A great many national anthems were born in this crucible and have the power to stir people’s souls profoundly. In the interests of fair disclosure I will say that I have little time for nationalism or patriotism. They seem to breed war and not much else.  The question I ask (without any simple answer) as an anthropologist, is “why music?” What is it about music in particular, and highly sophisticated music at that, which makes a Czech’s soul swell with pride? It is immensely powerful.

Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works. His funeral service was held on May 5, attended by tens of thousands.  His death notices covered the entire front pages of Czech newspapers. His ashes were interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, beneath a bust by Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun.

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To celebrate Dvořák’s life I have chosen a recipe for kulajda, a traditional Bohemian soup of cream, mushrooms, egg, dill and potatoes. The combination of dill and mushrooms is superb. Dill for me is the savor of the Slavs.

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Kulajda

Ingredients:

8 cups vegetable or other light stock
1 lb (500 g) potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, hard boiled, sliced
1 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3 tbsps white vinegar
1 tbsp caraway seed
salt
knob of butter

Instructions:

Bring the stock to a boil and add the potatoes. Reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes, then add the mushrooms, caraway seeds, and salt to taste.

Whisk together the milk and cream with the flour.  Be especially careful to ensure there are no lumps.  Pour this mixture into the soup in a steady stream while stirring vigorously. When it has all been incorporated, simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Add the chopped dill, stir and remove from the heat. Add the vinegar by the tablespoon while stirring.

Place the soup in a tureen a place a small cube of butter on top and slices of hard-boiled egg,

Serve with dark rye bread.

Yield:  6 – 8 portions