Apr 222018
 

Today is the birthday (1707) of Henry Fielding, English novelist and dramatist known primarily as the author of Tom Jones, written at a time when the English novel was in its infancy. He holds a significant place in the history of law enforcement, and, with his half-brother John, founded what some have called London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners.

Fielding was born in Sharpham in Somerset, and educated at Eton College, where he established a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Elder. When Fielding was 11, his mother died. A suit for custody was brought by his grandmother against his father, Lt. Gen. Edmund Fielding, whom she deemed irresponsible. The settlement placed Fielding in his grandmother’s care, although he continued to see his father in London. In 1725, Fielding tried to abduct his cousin, Sarah Andrews, while she was on her way to church. To avoid prosecution, he fled. In 1728, he travelled to Leiden to study classics and law at the university. However, lack of money obliged him to return to London and he began writing for the theatre. Some of his work was savagely critical of the government of the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 is alleged to be a direct response to his activities. The particular play that triggered the Licensing Act was the unproduced, anonymously authored, The Golden Rump, but Fielding’s dramatic satires had set the tone. Once the act was passed, political satire on the stage became virtually impossible, and playwrights whose works were staged were viewed as suspect. Fielding therefore retired from the theater and resumed his career in law in order to support his wife, Charlotte Craddock, and two children, by becoming a barrister. Fielding’s lack of business sense meant he and his family often endured periods of poverty, but he was helped by Ralph Allen, a wealthy benefactor, on whom Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones was later based. Allen went on to provide for the education and support of Fielding’s children after Fielding’s death.

Fielding never stopped writing political satire and satires of current arts and letters. The Tragedy of Tragedies (for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece) was, for example, quite successful as a printed play. He also contributed a number of works to journals of the day. From 1734 until 1739 he wrote anonymously for the leading Tory periodical, The Craftsman, against Walpole. Fielding’s patron was the opposition Whig MP (and his boyhood friend from Eton) George Lyttelton. Lyttelton followed his leader Lord Cobham in forming a Whig opposition to Walpole’s government, called the Cobhamites (who also included Fielding’s other Eton friend, William Pitt). In The Craftsman, Fielding articulated the opposition’s attack on bribery and corruption in British politics.

Fielding dedicated his play Don Quixote in England to the opposition Whig leader, Lord Chesterfield, and it was published on 17th April 1734, the same day writs were issued for the general election. He dedicated his 1735 play The Universal Gallant to Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, a political follower of Chesterfield. The other prominent opposition newspaper, Common Sense, was named after a character in Fielding’s Pasquin (1736) and was founded by Chesterfield and Lyttelton. Fielding continued to air his political views in satirical articles and newspapers in the late 1730s and early 1740s. He became the chief writer for the Whig government of Henry Pelham.

Fielding took to writing novels in 1741, irritated by Samuel Richardson’s success with Pamela. His first big success was an anonymous parody: Shamela. This satire follows the model of the famous Tory satirists of the previous generation, such as, Jonathan Swift and John Gay. Fielding followed Shamela with Joseph Andrews (1742), an original work supposedly dealing with Pamela’s brother, Joseph. His purpose in this book, however, was more than parody, for he intended, as he announced in the preface, a “kind of writing which I do not remember to have seen hithereto attempted in our language.” In this new kind of writing, which Fielding called a “comic epic poem in prouse,” he creatively blended two classical traditions: that of the epic, which had been poetic, and that of the drama, but emphasizing the comic rather than the tragic. Another distinction of Joseph Andrews and of the novels to come was the use of everyday reality of character and action as opposed to the fables of the past. Although begun as a parody, it developed into an accomplished novel in its own right and is considered to mark Fielding’s debut as a serious novelist. In 1743, he published a novel in the Miscellanies volume III (which was the first volume of the Miscellanies): The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great, which is sometimes counted as his first, as he almost certainly began it before he wrote Shamela and Joseph Andrews. It is a satire of Walpole that draws a parallel between him and Jonathan Wild, the infamous gang leader and highwayman. He implicitly compares the Whig party in Parliament with a gang of thieves being run by Walpole, whose constant desire to be a “Great Man” (a common epithet for Walpole) ought to culminate in the antithesis of greatness: being hanged.

His anonymous The Female Husband (1746) is a fictionalized account of a notorious case in which a female transvestite was tried for duping another woman into marriage. This was one of a number of small pamphlets, and cost sixpence at the time. Though a minor item in Fielding’s œuvre, the subject is consistent with his ongoing preoccupation with fraud, shamming and masks. His greatest work, Tom Jones (1749), came next.  If you don’t know it, read it. The hallmark of the book is its presentation of English life and character in the mid-18th century (akin to Hogarth’s art). Every social type is represented, and through them every shade of moral behavior.

Fielding married Charlotte Craddock in 1734 at the Church of St Mary in Charlcombe, Somerset. She died in 1744, and he later modelled the heroines of both Tom Jones and Amelia on her. They had five children together; their only daughter Henrietta died at age 23, having already been “in deep decline” when she married military engineer James Gabriel Montresor some months before. Three years after Charlotte’s death, Fielding disregarded public opinion by marrying her former maid Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. Mary bore five children: three daughters who died young, and sons William and Allen.

Despite this scandal, Fielding’s consistent anti-Jacobitism and support for the Church of England led to his being rewarded a year later with the position of London’s chief magistrate, while his literary career broadened. Most of his work was concerned with London’s criminal population of thieves, informers, gamblers, and prostitutes. In a corrupt and callous society, he became noted for his impartial judgements, incorruptibility, and compassion for those whom social inequities had forced into crime. The income from his office, which he called “the dirtiest money upon earth,” dwindled because he refused to take money from the very poor. With his younger half-brother, John, he helped found the Bow Street Runners, in 1749, which were, arguably, London’s first police force.

Both Fieldings did much to enhance judicial reform and improve prison conditions. Fielding’s influential pamphlets and enquiries included a proposal for the abolition of public hangings. This did not, however, imply opposition to capital punishment as such – as is evident, for example, in his presiding in 1751 over the trial of the notorious criminal James Field, finding him guilty in a robbery and sentencing him to hang. John Fielding, despite being blind by then, succeeded his older brother as chief magistrate, becoming known as the “Blind Beak of Bow Street” for his ability to recognize criminals by their voices alone.

In January 1752 Fielding started a fortnightly periodical, The Covent-Garden Journal, which he published under the pseudonym of “Sir Alexander Drawcansir, Knt. Censor of Great Britain” until November of the same year. In this periodical, Fielding directly challenged the “armies of Grub Street” and the contemporary periodical writers of the day in a conflict that would eventually become the Paper War of 1752–3.

Fielding then published “Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder” (1752), a treatise in which he rejected the deistic and materialistic visions of the world in favor of belief in God’s presence and divine judgement, arguing that the murder rate was rising due to neglect of the Christian religion. In 1753 he wrote “Proposals for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor.”

Fielding’s ardent commitment to the cause of justice as a great humanitarian in the 1750s (for instance, his support of Elizabeth Canning) coincided with rapid deterioration in his health. Gout, asthma, cirrhosis of the liver and other afflictions made him use crutches. His ill health led him to Portugal in 1754 in search of a cure, but he died in Lisbon, reportedly in physical pain and mental distress, only two months later. His tomb is in the city’s English Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês), which is now the graveyard of St. George’s Church, Lisbon.

“The Roast Beef of Old England” was originally written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub-Street Opera, first performed in 1731, and I gave it full coverage here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/roast-beef-old-england/  The 18th century saw a number of changes in food habits and fashions in England, including an increase in the use of vegetables in dishes, the popularity of potatoes, and a great interest in Continental cuisines, especially French. “The Roast Beef of Old England” was written as a counterblast to this trend, touting good, hearty roast beef as proper fare for the English rather than all this foreign muck – bisques and ragouts and whatnot (rather like Burns’s praise of haggis). John Nott published The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary: or, the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion in 1723, and from it we catch a glimpse of changing food tastes in England. You can find a .pdf of the full text in facsimile here: https://ia802700.us.archive.org/14/items/cooksandconfect00nottgoog/cooksandconfect00nottgoog.pdf It is organized alphabetically based on the name of the principal ingredient discussed. The section on beef is curious because there is no mention of good old-fashioned roast beef, but plenty of recipes for fricassee, braised beef, stuffed beef rolls and the like. Times were changing.

Here is a recipe for an asparagus omelet:

  1. To make an Amlet of Asparagus

Blanch your Asparagus, cut them in short Pieces, fry them in fresh Butter, with a little Parsley and Chibols [green onions]; then pour in some Cream, season them well, and let them boil over a gentle Fire: In the mean time make an Amlet with new laid Eggs, Cream, and Salt ; when it is enough, dress it on a Dish ; thicken the Asparagus with the Yolk of an Egg or two, turn the Asparagus on the Amlet, and serve it up hot.

Despite lack of precise measurements, it’s an easy enough recipe to follow if you have some experience in the kitchen, and worth a shot. I normally make an asparagus omelet by frying some asparagus spears in butter, making an omelet, and then folding the asparagus in before serving. This 18th century recipe is not so very different except that the asparagus has a creamy sauce with it.

Nov 032017
 

Today is the central day (full moon) of Bon Om Touk (បុណ្យអុំទូក]), the Cambodian Royal Water Festival, that marks a reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river. The Tonlé Sap river is unique in that it reverses flow twice a year. The river runs between Tonlé Sap lake in central Cambodia and the Mekong river in Phnom Penh and its direction of flow is determined by the height of the water in the lake. At the end of the monsoon season the lake reaches its maximum height and the Mekong is at its minimum, so flow begins out of the lake into the Mekong. In May/June inflow begins.

The full moon this lunar month, the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, is considered especially fortuitous. At midnight tonight the faithful will worship in temples throughout Cambodia. They will also make offerings of, and eat, ak ambok, a special rice dish produced only for the festival. It is made by parching rice in the husk, pulverizing it flat, then mixing it with banana and coconut. Don’t try this at home !!!

I live in Phnom Penh and so get to witness Bon Om Touk first hand. All of the photos in this post are my own from this year (2017). Bon Om Touk is celebrated in various ways throughout Cambodia, but the biggest and most famous festival takes place in Phnom Penh. Websites say that millions flock here each year, from parts of Cambodia and abroad, but I think that “millions” may be stretching it a bit. Walking around by day and by night has been crowded in places, but relatively easy in comparison with many other festivals I have been to world wide where you can be hemmed in on all sides.

The festival in Phnom Penh has 3 major components:

  1. Boat racing on the Tonlé Sap river.

These races take place over three days, consisting of rowing teams from all over Cambodia representing villages, work organizations, and other associations.  There are about 40 rowers per team, and the races take place continuously in daylight hours. They race in pairs which cross the finish line about once every minute or so. Spectators sit on the palace quay or stand on the banks. It’s not a mob scene, not least because few observers know precisely what’s going on, or who is racing at any particular time.

According to tradition the boat racing dates from the year 1177 when an enemy fleet moved upstream and across Tonlé Sap lake to sack the city of Angkor. Although they did sack it, the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII chased them down the river with his own navy and defeated them.

  1. Illuminated barges.

After dark, illuminated, highly decorated barges sail along the river in front of the palace quay. The barges represent various Cambodian agencies and associations.

3. Fireworks

 

Each night after dusk there are massive firework displays over the river (while the barges are sailing along). They last between 20 and 30 minutes and are non-stop barrages of light and sound.

After the activities on the river there are carnivals near the palace with food, music, and dancing.

You guessed it.  You want Cambodian festival food?  Come to Cambodia.  Here’s a video which shows that the techniques are not that difficult, but you won’t find the ingredients.  I eat this omelet all the time. It’s readily available in the market. It’s common to eat it with plain rice.

Oct 142016
 

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Today is World Egg Day, established at the IEC (International Egg Commission) Vienna 1996 conference when it was decided to celebrate World Egg Day on the second Friday in October each year. I love it !! Eggs have their own commission. Well done eggs. No doubt it has a lot to do with business and hype, but . . . so what? I love eggs – chicken, duck, quail, ostrich, fish . . . doesn’t matter. I eat them all.

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Here’s some of the hype from the IEC. Treat it with a pinch of salt (as you would your eggs):

Eggs are among the few foods that can be classified as a “superfood.”They are loaded with nutrients, some of which are rare in the modern diet. Here are 10 health benefits of eggs that have been confirmed in human studies.

    Eggs Are Incredibly Nutritious. Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet.A whole egg contains all the nutrients required to turn a single cell into a baby chicken.

    Eggs Are High in Cholesterol, But They Don’t Adversely Affect Blood Cholesterol

    Eggs Raise HDL (The “Good”) Cholesterol

    Eggs Contain Choline – an Important Nutrient That Most People Don’t Get Enough of

    Eggs Turn LDL Cholesterol From Small, Dense to Large: Linked to a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

    Eggs Contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin, Antioxidants That Have Major Benefits For Eye Health

    In the Case of Omega-3 or Pastured Eggs, They Lower Triglycerides as Well

    Eggs Are High in Quality Protein, With All The Essential Amino Acids in The Right Ratios

    Eggs do NOT Raise Your Risk of Heart Disease and May Reduce The Risk of Stroke

    Eggs Are Highly Fulfilling and Tend to Make You Eat Fewer Calories, Helping You to Lose Weight

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A recipe du jour? Surely you jest. I loved the fact that in China duck eggs and quail eggs were as common in markets as hen’s eggs. I routinely made my omelets from duck eggs. One of my favorite street snacks there was fried quail eggs on a stick (flavored with hot spices) – 3 Yuan (50 cents). In Japan I enjoyed a raw quail egg over salmon eggs in battleship sushi.

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In Argentina – onion and potato tortilla. Hands down my favorite diner food in New York is soft poached eggs over corned beef hash – the runny yolk is ambrosial.  Quiche in Lorraine. Need I go on?

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For today’s first meal I made an omelet with fresh shiitake mushrooms – what I happened to have on hand. I call it “first meal” because I don’t live by the designations breakfast, lunch, dinner. I eat when I want, what I want.  The idea that eggs are breakfast food is absurd. Here’s the photo gallery for today’s omelet:

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Sep 172016
 

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On this date in 1716 Jean Thurel, or Jean Theurel (6 September 1698 – 10 March 1807) enlisted as a fusilier in the French Army (Touraine Regiment) at the age of 18. He remained on active duty for 75 years, refusing all promotions, and died at the age of 108, still registered as a soldier in the army. Technically, therefore, he was a soldier for 90 years. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am averse to writing about war and soldiery, but I’ll make an exception for Thurel because of his extraordinary life. He was born in the reign of Louis XIV and died when Napoleon I was emperor; Thurel lived in three different centuries, experiencing extraordinary changes in France and Europe.

Thurel was born in Orain, Burgundy in 1698. As a soldier Thurel was severely wounded in battle on two occasions. In 1733, during the siege of Kehl, he was shot in the chest with a musket, and at the battle of Minden in 1759, he received seven sword slashes, including six to the head. Three of his brothers were killed in the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. One of Thurel’s sons was a corporal and a veteran in the same company. He died at the Battle of the Saintes, a naval battle that was fought off the coast of Dominica, West Indies during the American Revolutionary War, on 12 April 1782. Thurel was a survivor!

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Thurel was a notably well-disciplined infantry soldier of the line infantry and was admonished only once during his entire career. During the 1747 Siege of Bergen as the French troops occupied the citadel he was disciplined because, the doors of the fortress were locked, so he had to scale its walls to get in so that he would not miss muster. Another example of Thurel’s discipline and physical fitness occurred in 1787. When his regiment was ordered to march to the coast to embark on ships of the French Navy he was given the opportunity to travel in a carriage due to his advanced age – he was 88 at the time. Thurel refused the offer and marched the entire distance on foot, saying that he had never before traveled by carriage and had no intention of doing so at that time. His humility is evident in his steadfast refusal to accept any promotions. He remained a common fusilier for his entire military career.

In hopes of improving re-enlistment rates, Louis XV established the Médaillon Des Deux Épées (Medal of the Two Swords) by a royal decree in 1771. This was the first military decoration in France for which an enlisted man could be eligible. This medal was initially awarded to soldiers who had served in the French Army, as a reward for their longevity of service. The decree was extended in 1774 so that sailors of the French Navy were also eligible to receive the medal. A soldier or sailor would have to serve for 24 years to be eligible for the Médaillon Des Deux Épées. Thurel was awarded two Médaillon Des Deux Épées in 1771, the year the medal was established, in recognition of the two 24-year periods of time (1716–1740 and 1740–1764) he had served up until then.

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On 8 November 1787, Thurel was presented to the royal court at the Palace of Versailles. The 33-year-old king of France, Louis XVI, addressed the 88-year-old Army private in a respectful manner as “père” (“father”), and asked whether Thurel would prefer to be awarded the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis (Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis) or a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal, in recognition of the period from 1764–1788. This was a highly unusual request—not only because enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were not normally eligible to receive the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, which was reserved for commissioned officers of the Army or the Navy—but also because Thurel still had four more months of military service to complete before being eligible for a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal. Thurel opted to receive a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées, on the condition that the king himself attach the medal to his uniform. Louis agreed. The Comte d’Artois offered Thurel his sword, and the ladies of the court put a carriage at his disposal during his stay in the Paris area. The king also granted Thurel an annual pension of 300 livres. Very few men ever completed the 48 years of military service required to receive a second medal. Thurel was the only one to have received it three times. In 1788 the officers of his regiment jointly paid for a portrait of Thurel to be painted by Antoine Vestier (lead image).

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On 26 October 1804, at the age of 106, Thurel became one of the first recipients of the newly established Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor), the highest decoration in France. Napoleon also rewarded him with a pension of 1,200 francs. He was later appointed as the “oldest soldier of Europe.” He remained healthy in body and spirit throughout his remarkably long life. He died in Tours on 10 March 1807, at the age of 108, after a brief illness.

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In researching Thurel’s life I came across a brief discussion about his date of birth. Was he actually born in 1699 and not 1698? Apparently a baptismal record was discovered at some point listing 1699 as his date of birth, but some people believe that this is a forgery. I’d file this under “who cares?”  I’m sometimes given to wonder about the sanity of people who get all bent out of shape by insisting that he was 107, not 108, when he died. Our whole view of French history is hardly going to crumble because of this. Either way he lived a remarkable life.

Inasmuch as one can know anything about people of past centuries I’d have to say that I’d likely have found Thurel a bit hard to stomach in large doses if I’d ever met him. On the one hand, his dedication to service is admirable. I take my hat off to anyone who devotes his entire life, with energy and passion, to a single pursuit. On the other hand, Thurel reminds me of old men and women that I have met over the years who have an unwavering devotion to a fixed concept of duty that won’t bend under any circumstances. It’s not the devotion itself that I have any quarrel with, it’s the underlying inflexibility of mind that often goes with it that can be a tad annoying.

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Given that Thurel was on active duty for 75 years, he would have had one main meal per day throughout the 18th century, as was the custom for rich and poor. That works out to over 27,000 meals. I would imagine that an awful lot of them were the same, and I don’t imagine that Thurel was a gourmet nor used to fine dining. So let’s start with the basics. Standing armies did not develop much in Europe until the 18th century. Before that, militias were raised as needed. With the development of standing armies, budgets and rations had to be codified. They were more or less the same for France and Britain, for navies as well as armies. That is, in theory, each soldier (or sailor) was assigned something like 1 lb salt beef, 1 lb bread, and 1 pint legumes or rice. Whether they actually got this is another matter. Of course, individual circumstances would have varied enormously. Campaigning soldiers could ransack farms and farmhouses for provisions (and did), and when at home were encouraged to raise chickens and livestock, and tend gardens (usually turnips, carrots, and cabbage). What soldiers actually ate routinely would depend on both what was available and the abilities of the camp cooks. My surmise is that Thurel ate a lot of boiled beef and beans with bread. The common habit on campaign was for soldiers to eat in “messes” of 5 to 6 men, that is, the occupants of a single tent. Each mess would build a fire and cook their meals using an issued pot and kettle. The quality of cooking is anyone’s guess. Bread was supplied by local bakers or they ate hard tack.

I’ve covered military (naval) recipes, including salt beef, dried peas, and hard tack, in the past quite fully. You can search for them easily enough.   Whilst I can’t imagine that Thurel ate omelets terribly often, he must have had them once in a while. So I’ll stretch things a bit by giving an 18th century omelet recipe from Les Soupers de la Cour, Menon (1755). I gave his recipe for Omelette à la Gendarme (Military Omelette) here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thomas-paine/ . This name does not imply that the omelet was made for the military, but that it looks like soldiers on guard (sort of). Close enough.

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What intrigues me about this new recipe, omelette au jambon (ham omelet), is that it calls for “coulis” with ham as a sauce for the omelet. A coulis (the term used also in English by chefs) is a form of thick sauce made from puréed and strained vegetables or fruits. In this case the recipe specifies that the coulis be very sweet:

Mettez dans des oeufs une petite cuillerée coulis avec du jambon cuit haché; battez & faites l’omelette; dressez sur le plat; servez dessus une sauce faites avec coulis bien doux & jambon haché.

Roughly translated: Put a small spoonful of coulis with chopped ham into some eggs. Beat (the eggs), and make an omelet. Put it on a plate. Serve with a sauce of sweet coulis and chopped ham.

Your only issue is going to be how to make the coulis (I’m assuming you know how to cook an omelet). Well, technically that’s not a problem. Blend some fruit to a fine purée.  The question is what fruit to use. First off, I’d say that you need to add some stock to the coulis to give it more character whatever fruit you use. Beef stock would be all right, but ham stock or broth would be better. Still, if you are going to be true to this recipe it needs to be a sweet coulis. That means using a properly sweet, ripe fruit. Pineapple would serve, but would not be very 18th century. Plums would fit the bill better. But it’s your choice.

Jul 212016
 

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Today is one of those dates where two allied anniversaries coincide – perhaps deliberately. On this date in 1904 Louis Rigolly, from France, became the first person to break the 100 mph (161 km/h) barrier on land, and on the same date in 1925 Sir Malcolm Campbell, from England, became the first man to break the 150 mph (241 km/h) land barrier. These, and similar “barriers” are pretty much a function of the metrics you use. 100 mph has a nice ring to it (we used to call it “the ton”), because 100 is a nice round number in the decimal system. But it’s only significant if you measure distance in miles. In kilometers per hour 100 mph is 160.934 – ugh. It’s round enough, I suppose (if you knock off the decimals), but lacks the nice ring that 100 has. It’s the same with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the weather hits 100 degrees everyone comments, even though 99 is bloody hot. On the other hand 37.777 Celsius is just as hot, but there’s nothing remarkable about the number. Numbers are magical.

Louis Rigolly, set a land speed record of 103.561 mph (166.665 km/h) on a beach at Ostend in Belgium on 21 July 1904, driving a 13.5 litre Gobron-Brillié racing car. He covered a 1 kilometer course in 21.6 seconds, beating Belgian Pierre de Caters mark of 97.25 mph (156.51 km/h), set the previous May over the same course.

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Back in the early 20th century things were fairly straightforward. To create a land speed record you rode in a wheel-driven car. That’s what was available, and the records were an extension of the giddiness that pushed Industrial-Revolution era scientists and engineers of the 19th century to new heights. That giddiness was still around, but fading, when I lived in South Australia in the 1960s and Donald Campbell, son of Malcolm, came to Lake Eyre with the latest version of Bluebird. He established a new land speed record for a wheel-driven car of 403.1 mph in 1964, but by then jet and rocket propelled vehicles had entered the race and quickly went on to supersede wheel-driven vehicles. Besides, the race to the moon and other adventures had stolen the thunder of land speedsters.

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Nowadays the absolute land speed record is held by Andy Green a wing commander in the RAF. On 25 September 1997 in ThrustSSC he beat the previous record in Black Rock Desert, USA, reaching a speed of 714.144 mph (1,149.303 km/h). On October 15, 1997, 50 years and 1 day after the sound barrier was broken in aerial flight by Chuck Yeager, Green reached 763.035 miles per hour (1,227.986 km/h), the first supersonic land speed record (Mach 1.016).

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Maybe I’m not macho enough, but speed records have never excited me. I don’t especially like driving fast, although I have done the ton a few times in my youth. I think of speed as a disease of the modern era. Fast food can be a particular species of this general malady, but it doesn’t have to be. There are obviously a number of fast food joints that I cannot stomach (literally), and they are deservedly derided as peddlers of junk food. To produce a hamburger in under a minute you have to cut corners. But not all food is bad simply because you make it quickly. Some commercial fast foods can be quite decent. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili which is served in a flash. The 3-way is the standard, chili over spaghetti and topped with cheese. I always go for a bowl of plain myself – chile and nothing else.  I love the taste and texture of the chili, and cannot for the life of me replicate it at home, though I’ve tried many times.

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Cincinnati chili originated with immigrant restaurateurs from Macedonia who were trying to expand their customer base by moving beyond narrowly ethnic styles of cuisine. Tom and John Kiradjieff began serving a “stew with traditional Mediterranean spices” as a topping for hot dogs which they called “coneys” in 1922 at their hot dog stand located next to a burlesque theater called the Empress. Tom Kiradjieff used the sauce to modify a traditional Greek dish, speculated to have been pastitsio, moussaka or saltsa kima to come up with a dish he called chili spaghetti. He first developed a recipe calling for the spaghetti to be cooked in the chili but changed his method in response to customer requests and began serving the sauce as a topping, eventually adding grated cheese as a topping for both the chili spaghetti and the coneys, also in response to customer requests. That’s the way it is to this day at numerous chili joints throughout Cincinnati. Skyline is my favorite. I’ve never yet left one without eating at least 2 bowls of plain.

The reason that Cincinnati chili can be served as fast food is not that it is made quickly: just the opposite. It is made over 2 days, but then is kept piping hot so that it can be served in a flash. So it’s only fast food in one sense. The slow cooking is what makes it good. What about food that is cooked quickly but is also good? There’s the challenge. “Quickly” is, of course, a relative term. 30 minutes is a common standard in home kitchens as popularized by the execrable shows of Rachel Ray.  You can do better than that. If you want quick, eat an apple.

What you must do is factor in preparation time. For a while there were endless commercials on television for the Magic Bullet which made you believe that you could cook delicious, complex dishes in seconds. Rubbish. Sure, the presenters showed the Bullet whipping up stuff in no time, but all the vegetables were peeled and diced, the meat trimmed of fat and cut into handy chunks, and so forth. If you add in preparation seconds become minutes, even hours. Cooking quickly for me means doing everything from scratch from start to finish when you are ravenous and don’t want to wait. Although I love slow-cooked food, I can whip up something in a hurry if need be. Eggs are the obvious choice. They are made to be cooked quickly. Omelets make great fast food.

Every cook I know cooks omelets somewhat differently.  For me the key is the pan and the heat source, not the ingredients. I used to use an old, well-used omelet pan that I had kept for over 30 years. It was small and made of solid heavy metal, blackened on the bottom from endless use. It did not have a commercial non-stick cooking surface, but properly treated it did not stick. I lost it in one of my many moves and break ups – more tragic to me than the loss of the relationship. For me, gas is the best heat source because it is instantly controllable.

I can’t teach you how to make an omelet my way by talking about it. You need to see me at work. Here’s the basics.

Crack 2 eggs into a small cup.

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Beat the eggs lightly with a fork until the whites and yolks are mixed but not completely homogenized (what the Chinese call “silver and gold.”)

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Heat the pan over high heat until it is very hot. Add butter and let it melt, swirling to coat the pan.

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Before all the butter is completely melted, dump in the eggs.

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Let the eggs cook, pulling the cooked parts aside now and again and letting the raw egg flow on to the pan’s surface.

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When the omelet is almost ready, which for me means that the surface is runny, but the main part is cooked, let it sit with the heat off for 30 seconds. The residual heat will continue the cooking.

Turn the omelet on to a plate and serve. I like to add a few grinds of black pepper.

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Start to finish 3 minutes, tops. Of course, I know what I am doing.

Variations are legion. You can add herbs, ham, cheese etc., or you can make a plain omelet and fill it with what you will. I’ve made numerous varieties. But the plain omelet is hard to beat. The photos here are from this morning – cooked in the middle of writing.

Feb 092016
 

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Today is the birthday (1737) [O.S. January 29, 1736] of Thomas Paine, an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He was one of the so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, primarily because he published the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era rhetoric of transnational human rights. He has been called “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.” The “corsetmaker” piece was a deliberate slur by opponents. He was a “stay” maker, for sure, but the stays he made were not the whalebone stiffening of corsets, but thick ropes used on sailing ships.

Paine was born in Thetford, in the county of Norfolk, and emigrated to the British North American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. Virtually every rebel read (or listened to a reading of) his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which crystallized the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. His The American Crisis (1776–83) was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

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Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on British writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel. In 1792, despite not being able to speak French, he was elected to the French National Convention. The Girondists regarded him as an ally. Consequently, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/death-of-marat/ .

In December 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of his pamphlets The Age of Reason (1793–94), in which he advocated deism, promoted reason and free thought, and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He also published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. In 1802, he returned to the U.S. where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral partly because he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity, but also because in the 18th century funerals were small affairs for close intimates only.

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Paine’s Common Sense was influential and incendiary for many reasons. Most importantly, it was written in language that common people could easily grasp. Paine’s ideas were not remotely original, but the arguments of the social philosophers of the day, on which he based his writings, were not widely known outside elite circles. He thus popularized growing revolutionary and democratic sentiments. It must be noted, however, that his words met with some resistance from the elite of the colonies, some of whom, such as John Adams, president after Washington, were opposed to democracy as tantamount to rule by the uneducated.

His arguments against British rule of the colonies may be summarized:

It was absurd for an island to rule a continent.

The North American colonies were not a “British nation,” but composed of influences and peoples from all of Europe.

Even if Britain were the “mother country” of North America, that made her actions all the more horrendous, for no mother would harm her children so brutally.

Being a part of Britain would drag the colonies into unnecessary European wars, and impede international commerce.

The physical distance between the two nations made governing the colonies from England unwieldy. If some wrong were to be petitioned to Parliament, it would take a year or more before the colonies received a response.

The New World was discovered shortly before the Reformation. The Puritans believed that God wanted to give them a safe haven from the persecution of British rule.

Britain ruled the colonies for her own benefit, and did not consider the best interests of the colonists when making laws.

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On February 19, 1768, he was appointed excise officer to Lewes in Sussex, on the south coast of England. You can’t visit the town without immediately seeing evidence of his presence there from plaques to place names. Lewes is a town with a tradition of opposition to the monarchy and pro-republican sentiments going back to the revolutionary decades of the 17th century. Paine lived above the 15th century Bull House, the tobacco shop of Samuel Ollive and Esther Ollive. In Lewes Paine first became involved in civic matters, and he appears in the Town Book as a member of the Court Leet, the governing body for the town. He was also a member of the parish vestry, an influential local church group whose responsibilities for parish business would include collecting taxes and tithes to distribute among the poor. On March 26, 1771, at the age of 34, he married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlord’s daughter.

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Paine is known to have attended meetings and dined at the White Hart Inn whose chef/owner, William Verrall, recorded all of his recipes in a book that is still in print. Verrall decried the plain eating habits of the English at the time and trumpeted the tastes of the French. At this time the English gentry had mixed feelings about Frenchified “made” dishes – stews, ragouts, complex sauces &c – preferring steaks, chops, and roasts. What we might call a meat and potatoes diet these days. Verrall advocated fricassees and casseroles as well as delicate pairings of ingredients. Well, Paine, being a common man, loved mashed potatoes. Not much scope there for a recipe of the day. Instead I turn to Anglo-French cooking of the 18th century. Here is a typical recipe for an omelet stuffed with poached sorrel – an underused green vegetable these days. It’s easy to grow, and can get out of hand if you do not watch out. It looks a bit like spinach, but is a perennial. Because of the high oxalic acid content it’s a little sour. To make a ragout, poach shredded sorrel leaves in light stock, then drain it and squeeze out excess liquid.

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Here’s the French recipe for omelette à la gendarme taken from Les Soupers de la Cour, Menon (1755) found here http://18thccuisine.blogspot.it/2015/02/omlette-la-gendarme-military-omelette.html .

Omelette à la Gendarme.

Ayez un petit ragoût de farce d’oseille bien fini & bien lié; ajoutez-y du Parmesan rapé & mies de pain; faites une omelette naturelle, un peu mince; dressez-la dans le plat; mettez dessus le ragoût de farce; couvrez avec une autre omelette; garnissez tout autour avec des filets de pain frit que vous collez avec dublanc d’oeuf, de façon que les deux omelttes n’en fassent qu’une, sans que l’on voie la farce; arrosez le dessus avec du beurre; pannez moitié mies de pain & Parmesan; faites prendre couleur au four.

Loosely translated: Make a little sorrel stew (well finished and well appointed) and add some grated Parmesan and breadcrumbs. Make an omelet, a little thin. Put it in a dish, spread on the sorrel stew, and cover cover with another omelet. Garnish around with slices of fried bread that you stick with down with egg white. Sprinkle the top with butter, and a mix of breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Put it in the oven to give it a little color.

I’d make the omelet first, dot the top with butter, breadcrumbs and cheese, and slip it under the broiler for a minute or two. Then garnish with fried bread or toast.

Jun 302014
 

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On this date in 1859 Jean François Gravelet-Blondin (28 February 1824 – 22 February 1897), usually simply called Blondin, crossed the Niagara River numerous times on a tightrope. It is sometimes erroneously claimed that he crossed the falls themselves. His tightrope was actually somewhat down the river from the falls; but that makes the feat no less spectacular to my mind, and certainly no less to the minds of the spectators, and to those who learnt of the feat around the world at the time. I first learnt of it in grade 5 in South Australia (early 1960’s) via my Wide Range Reader, but it was not until I went to Niagara Falls on my honeymoon in 1986 that I got to see the actual wheelbarrow he used in one of his crossings, and so many more mementos – not to mention the many barrels people have gone over the falls in.

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Blondin owed his celebrity and fortune to his idea of a tightrope walk over Niagara Gorge – a rope that was 1,100 ft (340 m) long, 3.25 in (8.3 cm) in diameter and 160 ft (49 m) above the water, near the location of the current Rainbow Bridge. He first did it on 30 June 1859, and a number of times thereafter, always with different theatrical variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet, and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.

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Subsequently, in 1861, Blondin performed in London, at the Crystal Palace, turning somersaults on stilts on a rope stretched across the central transept, 70 feet (20 m) from the ground. In 1862, he again gave a series of performances at the Crystal Palace, and elsewhere in England. In September 1861 he performed in Edinburgh, at the Royal Botanic Gardens (then called the Experimental Gardens) on Inverleith Row.

Also in 1861, he performed at the Royal Portobello Gardens, on South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin, on a rope 50 feet above the ground. While he was performing, the rope broke, which led to the scaffolding collapsing. He was not injured, but two workers who were on the scaffolding fell to their deaths. An investigation was held, and the broken rope (2 inches in diameter and 5 inches in circumference) examined. No blame was attributed at the time to either Blondin or his manager. However, the judge said that the rope manufacturer had a lot to answer for. A bench warrant for the arrest of Blondin and his manager was issued when they did not appear at a further trial (they were in the U.S.). However, the following year, Blondin was back at the same venue in Dublin, this time performing 100 feet above the ground.

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On 6 September 1873, Blondin crossed Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham. A statue erected in 1992 on the nearby Ladywood Middleway marks his feat.

After a period of retirement, Blondin reappeared in 1880, including starring in the 1893/4 season of the pantomime “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Crystal Palace, organized by Oscar Barrett. His final performance was in Belfast in 1896. He died of diabetes at his “Niagara House” in Ealing, London, on 22nd February 1897 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

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Of course you have to make an omelet today. Here’s mine – mushrooms and green onions.

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Sauté the filling first in a little butter. Then keep it warm. Next, renew the butter in the pan on high heat, get it sizzling (but not brown) and add two beaten eggs. Move the pan back and forth with one hand whilst stirring the eggs with the other. This will make the omelet fluffy. Then leave it alone for a minute to let the eggs set to your taste. I prefer them to be a little runny on the inside. Add back the filling on one side, then tip the omelet on to a plate folding it over with the pan as you do so.

There are many other ways to make omelets but this is my preferred method – the French way – the way Blondin would have liked.