May 072019
 

Today is a rather odd coincidence day, the birthday, one year apart, of two Scottish philosophers, Thomas Reid (1710) and David Hume (1711).  In his day, Reid was perhaps the more influential, but nowadays Hume has the upper hand, although both have been superseded.  I’ll give you a small taste of their ideas, and of their critiques of one another, but my major point is to examine why we should care about the philosophy of knowledge and reason at all. Reid and Hume were pillars of what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment, the era that saw the flourishing of rigorous scientific method and the championing of reason over faith. The current pseudo-debate over science versus religion is an outgrowth of ideas generated in the 18th century, and the debates within the philosophical community of the era are germane to concerns we have nowadays – most especially political and social concerns. The question I ask continually in my own research is: “Why do people cling to ideas – often fervently – when they fly in the face of demonstrable facts?” Reid and Hume both had their answers to that question, radically different answers, involving the consideration of the question: “What is a fact, and how do we know it is true?”

Reid was the founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense, that is, “common sense” with a special philosophical meaning (sensus communis – natural senses humans have in common), not the popular meaning. According to Reid, our common sense is built on innate ideas (ideas we are born with). Hume denied the existence of innate ideas, believing that our ideas develop purely from our learned experience.  Reid believed, for example, that we are born with a sense of right and wrong – very Scottish Protestant of him, I am sure.  His moral philosophy is reminiscent of Roman stoicism in its emphasis on the agency of the subject and self-control. He often quotes Cicero, from whom he adopted the term “sensus communis”. Reid’s answer to Hume’s sceptical and naturalist arguments was to enumerate a set of principles of common sense (sensus communis) which constitute the foundations of rational thought. Anyone who undertakes a philosophical argument, for example, must implicitly presuppose certain beliefs like, “I am talking to a real person,” and “There is an external world whose laws do not change,” among many other positive, substantive claims. For Reid, the belief in the truth of these principles is not rational; rather, reason itself demands these principles as prerequisites, as does the innate “constitution” of the human mind. It is for this reason (and possibly a mocking attitude toward Hume and Berkeley) that Reid sees belief in the principles of common sense as a litmus test for sanity. For example, in The Intellectual Powers of Man he states, “For, before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you.”


Hume’s empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of humans that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behavior. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.

In what is sometimes referred to as Hume’s problem of induction, he argued that inductive reasoning and belief in causality cannot be justified rationally; instead, our trust in causality and induction result from custom and mental habit, and are attributable only to the experience of “constant conjunction” of events. This is because we can never actually perceive that one event causes another, but only that the two are always conjoined. Accordingly, to draw any causal inferences from past experience it is necessary to presuppose that the future will resemble the past, a presupposition which cannot itself be grounded in prior experience.

Hume was also a “sentimentalist” who held that ethics are based on emotion (or sentiment) rather than abstract moral principles, famously proclaiming that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Hume maintained an early commitment to naturalistic explanations of moral phenomena, and is usually taken to have first clearly expounded the is–ought problem, or the idea that a statement of fact alone can never give rise to a normative conclusion of what ought to be done. Hume influenced utilitarianism, logical positivism, Immanuel Kant, the philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive science, theology, and other movements. Kant himself credited Hume as the spur to his philosophical thought who had awakened him from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

So, why should you care about any of these debates?  Right now they are important because they are crucial to understanding the state of the world today. What is the status of knowledge and rationality these days?  At election time do people look at the candidates on offer, assess all the information available to them, and then vote rationally? I think you know the answer to that question.  People favor candidates for many reasons, and logic is rarely in the mix when they make their choices.  As often as not they choose candidates who are going to work against their own interests and/or the interests of the country – and the evidence that they will do this is in plain sight. But they vote for them anyway. Why?  Much of it has to do with embedded ideas based on sentiment that cannot be changed by facts. Then we have to ask: How do we stop people from behaving irrationally, especially when their decisions negatively impact others in dramatic ways?  Good question. Such questions cannot be explored sensibly without knowing how people think, and our understanding in this regard is still pitiful.

On that note let’s turn to cooking.  What knowledge do you need to possess to follow a recipe successfully?  Recipes from 200 years ago made gigantic assumptions about what the cook who read them already knew.  They were of the style: “Take some of this and a bit of that and boil it over a brisk fire until it is done.” Contemporary recipes are much more specific when it comes to ingredients, preparation, quantities, timing, temperatures, etc., but an enormous amount is still left unsaid, or assumed.  I can give identical recipes to two different cooks, and even when following the recipes to the letter they will produce notably different dishes.  Years ago I used to make Argentine tortillas for my girlfriend all the time, and she asked me to teach her how to make them.  First, I showed her – step by step – then I stood over her and supervised her as she cooked one. We did this multiple times, and yet she never could replicate my method, and her tortillas were nothing like mine. Somehow our knowledge base was not the same. The knowledge base of expert cooks is a mystery.  I travel so much because it’s the only way to taste the dishes of the world.  People who have devoted their lives to hand making rice noodles, roasting duck, or slow baking tripe in their corners of the world, make dishes that cannot be replicated by anyone else.  You have to go to where the cooks live and work to sample their wares.

For today’s recipe think of those dishes that you know from the hands of one cook only.  They could be a memory of a favorite grandmother, or a special delight you experienced on a trip. I think of my father’s ravioli or my mother-in-law’s fried chicken; I think of my favorite Kunming duck and a little baklava shop in Istanbul.

 

Oct 202018
 

Today is the birthday (1859) of John Dewey, a US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey is one of the primary figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology. Dewey was a well-known public intellectual in his day, he was also a major voice of progressive education and liberalism. Although Dewey is known best for his publications about education, he also wrote about many other topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics. To try to keep this post under control I’ll speak to his philosophy of education only. Even so, things may get lengthy.

Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916), Schools of To-morrow (c.1915) with Evelyn Dewey, and Experience and Education (1938). Several themes recur throughout these writings. Dewey continually argues that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning.

The ideas of democracy and social reform are continually discussed in Dewey’s writings on education. Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. In addition to helping students realize their full potential, Dewey goes on to suggest that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform.

In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, “the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened.” He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge.

At the same time, Dewey was alarmed by many of the “child-centered” excesses of educational-school pedagogues who claimed to be his followers, and he argued that too much reliance on the child could be equally detrimental to the learning process. According to Dewey, the potential flaw in this line of thinking is that it minimizes the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher. Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. He argued that “if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind”

In The School and Society and Democracy of Education, Dewey claims that rather than preparing citizens for ethical participation in society, schools cultivate passive pupils via insistence upon mastery of facts and disciplining of bodies. Rather than preparing students to be reflective, autonomous and ethical beings capable of arriving at social truths through critical and intersubjective discourse, schools prepare students for docile compliance with authoritarian work and political structures, discourage the pursuit of individual and communal inquiry, and perceive higher learning as a monopoly of the institution of education. For Dewey and his philosophical followers, education stifles individual autonomy when learners are taught that knowledge is transmitted in one direction, from the expert to the learner. Dewey not only re-imagined the way that the learning process should take place, but also the role that the teacher should play within that process. Dewey’s qualifications for being a teacher were, a natural love for working with young children, a natural propensity to inquire about the subjects, methods and other social issues related to the profession, and a desire to share this acquired knowledge with others, and not a set of outwardly displayed mechanical skills.

For many, education’s purpose is to train students for work by providing the student with a limited set of skills and information to do a particular job. As Dewey notes, this limited vocational view is also applied to teacher training schools who attempt to quickly produce proficient and practical teachers with a limited set of instructional and discipline skills needed to meet the needs of the employer and demands of the workforce. For Dewey, the school and the classroom teacher, as a workforce and provider of a social service, have a unique responsibility to produce psychological and social goods that will lead to both present and future social progress.

The best indicator of teacher quality, according to Dewey, is the ability to watch and respond to the movement of the mind with keen awareness of the signs and quality of the responses he or her students exhibit with regard to the subject-matter presented. As Dewey notes, “I have often been asked how it was that some teachers who have never studied the art of teaching are still extraordinarily good teachers. The explanation is simple. They have a quick, sure and unflagging sympathy with the operations and process of the minds they are in contact with. Their own minds move in harmony with those of others, appreciating their difficulties, entering into their problems, sharing their intellectual victories.” Such a teacher is genuinely aware of the complexities of this mind to mind transfer, and has the intellectual fortitude to identify the successes and failures of this process, as well as how to appropriately reproduce or correct it in the future.

As well as his very active and direct involvement in setting up educational institutions such as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (1896) and The New School for Social Research (1919), many of Dewey’s ideas influenced the founding of Bennington College and Goddard College in Vermont, where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Dewey’s works and philosophy also held great influence in the creation of the short-lived Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental college focused on interdisciplinary study, and whose faculty included Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Charles Olson, Franz Kline, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Paul Goodman, among others. Black Mountain College was the locus of the “Black Mountain Poets” a group of avant-garde poets closely linked with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance.

This site https://learn.uvm.edu/program/john-dewey-kitchen-institute/ focuses on the John Dewey Kitchen Institute at the University of Vermont, Dewey’s alma mater, and also where he is buried. Dewey thought that cooking was a useful arena for his educational principals, less because it engaged students in practical activities, and more because cooking can spark curiosity, inquiry, and creativity if approached in the right way. At this point you might want to glance at the Chameleon Cook tab here if you have not already. My chameleon cooking is somewhat like Dewey’s idea of education. If you just take a recipe, learn it, and then repeat it mechanically you have learned nothing. If you take a recipe and begin to ask questions, you are more in line with Dewey: practice leads to inquiry via curiosity. “What would happen if I do it this way?” “Is this ingredient essential?” etc. etc. So . . . let’s take eggs Benedict. Classic eggs Benedict has four layers: toasted muffin, ham, poached egg, and Hollandaise sauce.  What would happen if you replaced the muffin with toast, or the ham with bacon, or the poached egg with a fried egg, or the Hollandaise with Béchamel?  Those are all very straightforward changes, but they get the process started. Get more radical, replace the ham with poached spinach. Those of you who know your cooking will know that all of these substitutions have been done before and are classic dishes in their own right. How are you going to be original? How about scrambled egg instead of poached? Really funky might involve switching out everything, such as, scrambled egg on fried zucchini, over a crumpet, with cheese sauce. Perhaps not. You figure out what works for you.

Sep 282018
 

Today is generally accepted to be the birthday (551 BCE) of the Chinese philosopher known in English as Confucius. Confucius is traditionally credited with having written or edited numerous Chinese classic texts, but modern scholars are cautious about attributing specific works to Confucius himself. Confucius’ stated principles have much in common with Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending the family as a basis for ideal government. His teaching and philosophy have influenced people around the world. If you wish you can skip down below the biography which follows here and read about Confucian philosophy and its application to cooking.

The name “Confucius” is a Latinized form of the Mandarin Chinese “Kǒng Fūzǐ” (孔夫子, meaning “Master Kong” – often shortened nowadays to “孔子” Kǒng Zǐ – also intrinsically meaning “Master Kong” but is now simply a name in much the same way that all Chinese names have a literal meaning which is not particularly emphasized in everyday speech), and was coined in the late 16th century by the early Jesuit missionaries to China. Confucius’s clan name was “Kǒng” (孔; Old Chinese: *kʰˤoŋʔ), and his given name was “Qiū” (丘; OC: *kʷʰə). His “capping name”, given upon reaching adulthood and by which he would have been known to all but his older family members, was “Zhòngní” (仲尼; OC: *N-truŋ-s nrəj), the “Zhòng” indicating that he was the second son in his family.

Confucius was born in the district of Zou (鄒邑) near present-day Qufu in China. The area was notionally controlled by the kings of Zhou but effectively independent under the local lords of Lu. His father Kong He (孔紇) or Shuliang He (叔梁紇) was an elderly commandant of the local Lu garrison. His ancestry traced back through the dukes of Song to the Shang dynasty which had preceded the Zhou. Traditional accounts of Confucius’s life relate that Kong He’s grandfather had migrated the family from Song to Lu.

Kong He died when Confucius was 3 years old, and Confucius was raised by his mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) in poverty. His mother was less than 40 when she died. At age 19 Confucius married Qiguan (亓官), and a year later the couple had their first child, Kong Li (孔鯉). They later had two daughters together, one of whom is thought to have died as a child. Confucius was educated at schools for commoners, where he studied and learned the Six Arts: Rites (禮), Music (樂), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (書), and Mathematics (數).

Confucius was born into the class of shi (士), between the aristocracy and the common people. He is said to have worked in various government jobs during his early 20s, and as a bookkeeper and a caretaker of sheep and horses, using the proceeds to give his mother a proper burial. When his mother died, Confucius (aged 23) is said to have mourned for three years, as was the tradition.

In Confucius’s time, the state of Lu was headed by a ruling ducal house. Under the duke were three aristocratic families, whose heads bore the title of viscount (all noble titles used here are English equivalents of old Chinese terms) and held hereditary positions in the Lu bureaucracy. The Ji family held the position “Minister over the Masses”, who was also the “Prime Minister”; the Meng family held the position “Minister of Works”; and the Shu family held the position “Minister of War”. In the winter of 505 BC, Yang Hu—a retainer of the Ji family—rose up in rebellion and seized power from the Ji family. However, by the summer of 501 BCE, the three hereditary families had succeeded in expelling Yang Hu from Lu. By then, Confucius had built up a considerable reputation through his teachings, and families came to see the value of proper conduct and righteousness, so they could maintain loyalty to a legitimate government. Thus, that year Confucius came to be appointed to the minor position of governor of a town. Eventually, he rose to the position of Minister of Crime.

Confucius desired to return the authority of the state to the duke by dismantling the fortifications of the city—strongholds belonging to the three families. This way, he could establish a centralized government. However, Confucius relied solely on diplomacy as he had no military authority himself. In 500 BCE, Hou Fan—the governor of Hou—revolted against his lord of the Shu family. Although the Meng and Shu families unsuccessfully besieged Hou, a loyalist official rose up with the people of Hou and forced Hou Fan to flee to the Qi state. The situation may have been in favor for Confucius as this likely made it possible for Confucius and his disciples to convince the aristocratic families to dismantle the fortifications of their cities. Eventually, after a year and a half, Confucius and his disciples succeeded in convincing the Shu family to raze the walls of Hou, the Ji family in razing the walls of Bi, and the Meng family in razing the walls of Cheng. First, the Shu family led an army towards their city Hou and tore down its walls in 498 BCE.

Soon thereafter, Gongshan Furao or Buniu, a retainer of the Ji family, revolted and took control of the forces at Bi. He immediately launched an attack and entered the capital Lu. Earlier, Gongshan had approached Confucius to join him, which Confucius considered. Even though he disapproved the use of a violent revolution, the Ji family dominated the Lu state force for generations and had exiled the previous duke. Although he wanted the opportunity to put his principles into practice, Confucius gave up on this idea in the end. Gongshan was generally considered an upright man who continued to defend the state of Lu, even after he was forced to flee.

During the revolt by Gongshan, Zhong You (仲由) had managed to keep the duke and the three viscounts together at the court. Zhong You was one of the disciples of Confucius, and Confucius had arranged for him to be given the position of governor by the Ji family. When Confucius heard of the raid, he requested that Viscount Ji Huan allow the duke and his court to retreat to a stronghold on his palace grounds. Thereafter, the heads of the three families and the duke retreated to the Ji’s palace complex and ascended the Wuzi Terrace. Confucius ordered two officers to lead an assault against the rebels. At least one of the two officers was a retainer of the Ji family, but they were unable to refuse the orders while in the presence of the duke, viscounts, and court. The rebels were pursued and defeated at Gu. Immediately after the revolt was defeated, the Ji family razed the Bi city walls to the ground.

The attackers retreated after realizing that they would have to become rebels against the state and their lord. Through Confucius’s actions, the Bi officials had inadvertently revolted against their own lord, thus forcing Viscount Ji Huan’s hand in having to dismantle the walls of Bi (as it could have harbored such rebels) or confess to instigating the event by going against proper conduct and righteousness as an official. The incident brought to light Confucius’ foresight, practical political ability, and insight into human character.

When it was time to dismantle the city walls of the Meng family, the governor was reluctant to have his city walls torn down and convinced the head of the Meng family not to do so. The Zuo Zhuan recalls that the governor advised against razing the walls as he believed that this would make Cheng vulnerable to the Qi state and cause the destruction of the Meng family. Even though viscount Meng Yi gave his word not to interfere with an attempt, he went back on his earlier promise to dismantle the walls.

Later in 498 BCE, duke Ding personally went with an army to lay siege to Cheng in an attempt to raze its walls to the ground, but he did not succeed. Thus, Confucius could not achieve the idealistic reforms that he wanted including restoration of the legitimate rule of the duke. He had made powerful enemies within the state, especially with viscount Ji Huan, due to his successes so far. According to accounts in the  traditional records, Zuo Zhuan and Shiji, Confucius departed his homeland in 497 BCE after his support for the failed attempt of dismantling the fortified city walls of the powerful Ji, Meng, and Shu families. He left the state of Lu without resigning, remaining in self-exile and unable to return as long as viscount Ji Huan was alive.

The Shiji stated that the neighboring Qi state was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful while Confucius was involved in the government of the Lu state. According to this account, Qi decided to sabotage Lu’s reforms by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the duke of Lu. The duke indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. Confucius was disappointed and resolved to leave Lu and seek better opportunities, yet to leave at once would expose the misbehavior of the duke and therefore bring public humiliation to the ruler Confucius was serving. Confucius therefore waited for the duke to make a lesser mistake. Soon after, the duke neglected to send to Confucius a portion of the sacrificial meat that was his due according to custom, and Confucius seized upon this pretext to leave both his post and the Lu state.

After Confucius’ resignation, he began a long journey or set of journeys around the principality states of north-east and central China including Wey, Song, Zheng, Cao, Chu, Qi, Chen, and Cai (and a failed attempt to go to Jin). At the courts of these states, he expounded his political beliefs but did not see them implemented.

According to the Zuo Zhuan, Confucius returned home to his native Lu when he was 68, after he was invited to do so by Ji Kangzi, the chief minister of Lu. The Analects depict him spending his last years teaching 72 or 77 disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of texts called the Five Classics. These are:

Classic of Poetry

A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 105 festal songs sung at court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrifices to heroes and ancestral spirits of the royal house.

Book of Documents

A collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative, and may date from the 6th century BCE. It includes examples of early Chinese prose.

Book of Rites

Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. The version studied today is a re-worked version compiled by scholars in the 3rd century BCE rather than the original text, which is said to have been edited by Confucius himself.

I Ching (Book of Changes)

The book contains a, now, well known divination system. In Western cultures and modern East Asia, it is still widely used for this purpose.

Spring and Autumn Annals

An historical record of the State of Lu, Confucius’s native state, 722–481 BCE.

During his return, Confucius sometimes acted as an advisor to several government officials in Lu, including Ji Kangzi, on matters including governance and crime. Burdened by the loss of both his son and his favorite disciples, Confucius died at the age of 71 or 72. He died from natural causes. Confucius was buried in Kong Lin cemetery which lies in the historical part of Qufu in the Shandong Province. The original tomb erected there in memory of Confucius on the bank of the Sishui River had the shape of an axe. In addition, it has a raised brick platform at the front of the memorial for offerings such as sandalwood incense and fruit.

Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, many argue that its values are secular and that it is, therefore, less a religion than a secular morality. Proponents argue, however, that despite the secular nature of Confucianism’s teachings, it is based on a worldview that is religious. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning Heaven, but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters which you might consider essential to religious thought, such as the nature of souls. However, Confucius is said to have believed in astrology, saying: “Heaven sends down its good or evil symbols and wise men act accordingly”.

In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing”. He puts the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and it is the Chinese character for study (學) that opens the text. Far from trying to build a systematic or formalist theory, he wanted his disciples to master and internalize older classics, so that their deep thought and thorough study would allow them to relate the moral problems of the present to past political events (as recorded in the Annals) or the past expressions of commoners’ feelings and noblemen’s reflections (as in the poems of the Book of Odes).

His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Confucian ethics may, therefore, be considered a type of virtue ethics. His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed indirectly, through allusion, innuendo, and even tautology. His teachings require examination and context to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?” 不問馬。

“When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.” By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrates that the sage values human beings over property; readers are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius’ and to pursue self-improvement if it would not have. Confucius not serve as the prophet of a deity, and his teachings are not understood as a universally true set of abstract principles. Rather he is represented as the ultimate model for others. Many commentators therefore consider Confucius’ teachings to be a Chinese example of humanism.

One of his teachings was a variant of the Golden Rule, sometimes called the “Silver Rule” owing to its negative form:

己所不欲,勿施於人。

“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

子貢問曰:“有一言而可以終身行之者乎?”子曰:“其恕乎!己所不欲、勿施於人。”

Zi Gong [a disciple] asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”

The Master replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption, and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness. Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one’s own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness. Words to live by !!! I am not in any sense a Confucian scholar or disciple (although I have studied his works), but in one way or another I adhere to these principles.

No recipe today, but instead Confucian principles related to food (which are followed in China, but not always in Chinese restaurants outside of China). The philosophy of Confucius is deeply reflected in Chinese food culture to this day. He attached great importance to food and described it as one of the three basic conditions, along with an army and trust, for founding a state. It is said that Confucius helped to bring perfect taste to Chinese food by developing proper cooking techniques.

Confucian food basics:
  • Food should be served in small or chopped pieces
  • The taste of any dish depends on proper mixing of all of its ingredients and condiments
  • Taste of individual elements does not have great importance in food, but fine blending of ingredients results in great taste and dishes in meals must be compatible
  • Blending of food also results in harmony and is an important part of the philosophy; without harmony foods cannot taste good
Confucius recommends:
  • Eat only at meal times
  • Don’t eat food that smells bad
  • Don’t consume food that is not well cooked
  • Eat fresh and local; do not eat food out of season
  • Don’t eat when the sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared
  • Eat ginger but in moderation so as to not increase the internal heat of the body
  • Know the origin or source of your food
  • The way you cut your food reflects the way you live
  • Meat should be eaten in moderation
  • Eat only until seven tenths full; control in portions promotes longevity
  • You need not limit drinking, but do not drink to the point of confusion
  • Hygiene is essential in food preparation

 

 

 

Jun 052018
 

Today is the birthday (1646) of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, also called Helen Cornaro, a Venetian philosopher of noble descent, who was one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university and is sometimes claimed to be the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D. degree. At the time, the Ph.D. or equivalent did not exist in Italy, so we have to approach the claim with a little caution. In fact, the equivalent degree to the Ph.D. (dottorato di ricercar) did not exist in Italy until the 20th century. This state of affairs can lead to a great deal of quibbling. Piscopia held a laurea which I will describe more fully below. For a laurea, a student had to complete 4 to 6 years of university courses, and also complete a thesis. Laureati were customarily addressed as dottore (for a man) or dottoressa (for a woman), i.e. “doctor.” Until the introduction of the dottorato di ricerca in the mid-1980s, the laurea constituted the highest academic degree obtainable in Italy and gave the holders access to the highest academic positions. Nobel prize winners such as Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segrè, Giulio Natta, and Carlo Rubbia held it as their highest degree. The quibble comes in given that for centuries the laurea was the only post-secondary degree in Italy and the standards for obtaining one varied enormously. You will have to decide for yourself whether Piscopia’s degree was equivalent to a modern Ph.D.

Piscopia was born in the Palazzo Loredan in Venice. She was the third child of Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia, and his mistress Zanetta Boni. Her mother was a peasant and her parents were not married at the time of her birth. As such, Lady Elena was not technically a member of the Cornaro family by birth, as Venetian law barred illegitimate children of nobles from noble privilege, even if recognized by the noble parent. Her mother probably fled to Venice in order to escape starvation, and soon became the mistress of a member of one of the most powerful noble dynasties in the Republic. Gianbattista and Zanetta married officially in 1654, but their children were barred from noble privilege, which galled Gianbattista.

In 1664, her father was chosen to become the Procuratore di San Marco de supra, the treasurer of St. Mark’s, a coveted position among Venetian nobility. At that point, her father was second only to the Doge of Venice in terms of precedence. Because of this connection, Lady Elena was prominent in the annual Marriage of the Sea celebration focusing on the power of the Doge and the maritime dominance of Venice, even though she was born illegitimate. Her father tried to arrange betrothals for her several times. She rebuffed each man’s advances, as she had taken a vow of chastity at the age of 11. In 1665 she took the habit of a Benedictine Oblate without, however, becoming a nun.

As a young girl, Piscopia was seen as a prodigy. On the advice of Giovanni Fabris, a priest who was a friend of the family, she began a classical education. She studied Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors, and became proficient in these languages at the age of 7. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic. Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology.  Piscopia also became an expert musician, learning to play the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp, and the violin as well as composing music for these instruments.

In her late teens and early twenties, she concentrated on physics, astronomy, and linguistics. Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, and at that point the Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Padua, published a book in Latin in 1668 on geometry and dedicated it to Piscopia. When her main tutor, Fabris, died, she became even closer to Rinaldini, who took over her studies. In 1669, she translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Giovanni Lanspergio from Spanish into Italian. The translation was dedicated to her close friend and confessor Gianpaolo Oliva. The volume was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici. Upon the recommendation of Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, Felice Rotondi, petitioned the University of Padua to grant Cornaro the laurea in theology. When Gregorio Cardinal Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, learned that she was pursuing a degree in theology, he refused on the grounds that she was a woman. However, he did allow her to sit for a degree in philosophy and after a course of study received the laurea in Philosophy. She was examined for the degree on 25th June 1678, in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. Piscopia spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle. When she had finished, she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini awarded her the insignia of the laurea, the book of philosophy, placing the wreath of laurel on her head, the ring on her finger, and over her shoulders the ermine mozetta. This scene is illustrated in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.

The last seven years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died at Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina in Padua. A statue of her was placed in the university.

Piscopia’s death was marked by memorial services in Venice, Padua, Siena, and Rome. Her writings, published in Parma in 1688, include academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises. In 1685 the University of Padua struck a medal in her honor. In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Elena’s tomb opened, the remains placed in a new casket, and a tablet inscribed to her memory.

Venice is home to a huge variety of dishes made with rice. When you talk about risotto in northern Italy in general you can get into pretty deep waters with locals who all have their own preferences. But Venice by itself has scores of restaurants that specialize in a particular risotto (often with local fish), and watching the chefs at work is a wonder. Risi e bisi (rice and peas) is a somewhat more ubiquitous marvel that appears in spring when peas are freshly harvested. As with many, many regional specialties, I suggest you fly to Venice in the spring and sample the offerings. You won’t be able to recreate them at home. I can’t either if it’s any consolation. My risotto passes muster with some of my Italian friends, but it is far from the best. I’ve been working on technique for about 15 years. I can share the general idea with you, but the practice is up to you. For risi e bisi you should be using broth made by simmering fresh pea pods. The whole dish should be redolent of fresh peas. That means that the dish will work out best for you if you grow your own garden peas (or have a friend with a garden). You can also do reasonably well if you make a broth by simmering fresh Chinese snow peas. Anything other than pea broth will miss the mark. Likewise, you must use freshly picked peas. If you come across a recipe for risi e bisi that uses frozen peas, throw it away. You could use Venetian Grana Padano for your cheese to have a more fully local flavor if you want, but, in fact, Venetians usually use Parmigiano-Reggiano because it has a slightly more complex flavor (and Parma/Reggio Emilia, is not so far from Venice anyway).

Risi e Bisi

Ingredients

7 cups fresh pea broth
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup minced onion
¼ cup diced pancetta
2 cups arborio rice
4 cups shelled fresh peas
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Bring the pea stock to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan and keep warm. Having the stock near boiling while cooking the rice is critical.

Melt 2 tablespoons of  butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, but do not let it take on color. Add the pancetta and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir it in the hot oil and butter until the individual grains are coated.

This is the part that needs constant attention. Add 1 ladle of stock to the pan, and start stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The temperature of the stock is the key factor. It should not be boiling too vigorously nor off the boil. When the stock is almost absorbed, add another ladleful. You want to keep the stock in the skillet at a constant temperature, so keeping it warm in a pan is essential. Continue adding the stock one ladleful at a time, letting it be almost absorbed before adding the next, until the rice is almost tender (that is, after about 4 ladles you need to start biting the rice to test it). When the rice is almost cooked add the peas and a last ladleful of stock. Continue stirring. If all has gone well the rice should be creamy and tender but still firm to the bite.

Remove the skillet from heat. Stir in the remaining butter and olive oil along with the cheese and parsley. Season the dish to taste with salt and pepper. Serve straight from the skillet with crusty bread.

Aug 202017
 

Today is the birthday of Howard Phillips (“H.P.”) Lovecraft, U.S. author who achieved posthumous fame through his works of horror fiction. He was virtually unknown, and published only in pulp magazines, before he died in poverty; but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in the genre. Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he spent most of his life. Among his most celebrated tales are “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Lovecraft was never able to support himself from earnings as an author or editor and commercial success increasingly elude him in his later years, not least because he lacked the confidence and drive to promote himself and spent much of his life as a recluse.

Lovecraft was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft (1853–1898), a traveling salesman of jewelry and precious metals, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft (1857–1921), who could trace her ancestry to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Lovecraft’s father, who became acutely psychotic in 1893 when Lovecraft was 3 years old, was placed in the Providence psychiatric institution of Butler Hospital where he remained until his death in 1898. After his father’s hospitalization, Lovecraft was raised by his mother, his maternal aunts Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips, and his maternal grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips, a businessman. All five lived together in the family home.

Lovecraft was frequently ill as a child, and he barely attended school until he was eight years old because of his sickly condition, and was withdrawn after a year. Beginning in his early life, Lovecraft is believed to have suffered from sleep paralysis, a form of parasomnia. He believed himself to be assaulted at night by horrific “night gaunts.” Much of his later work is thought to have been directly inspired by these terrors.

The adult Lovecraft was gaunt with dark eyes set in a very pale face (he rarely went out before nightfall). For five years after leaving school, he lived an isolated existence with his mother, primarily writing poetry without seeking employment or new social contacts. This changed in 1913 when he wrote a letter to the pulp magazine Argosy complaining about the insipidness of the love stories in the publication by writer Fred Jackson. The ensuing debate in the magazine’s letters column caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who invited Lovecraft to join the organization in 1914.

The UAPA reinvigorated Lovecraft and incited him to contribute many poems and essays; in 1916, his first published story, The Alchemist, appeared in the United Amateur Press Association. The earliest commercially published work came in 1922, when he was 31. By this time he had begun to build what became a huge network of correspondents. His lengthy and frequent letters eventually made him one of the great letter writers of the century. Among his correspondents were Robert Bloch (Psycho), Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian series). Many former aspiring authors later paid tribute to his mentoring and encouragement through the correspondence. Although Lovecraft was dismissed in his day as a hack writer of little consequence, he began to acquire the status of a cult writer in the counterculture of the 1960s and reprints of his work proliferated.

Philosopher Graham Harman wrote “No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.” Harman describes Lovecraft as an anti-reductionist who was a pioneer in the literary genre of speculative realism (which includes science fiction and fantasy), and at a conference of philosophers on speculative realism he noted that the major philosophers in the field shared no philosophical heroes, but all were enthusiastic readers of Lovecraft.

Several themes recur in Lovecraft’s stories:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

Forbidden, dark, esoterically veiled knowledge is a central theme in many of Lovecraft’s works. Many of his characters are driven by curiosity or scientific endeavor, and in many of his stories the knowledge they uncover proves Promethean in nature, either filling the seeker with regret for what they have learned, destroying them psychologically, or completely destroying the person who holds the knowledge. Some critics argue that this theme is a reflection of Lovecraft’s contempt of the world around him.

Lovecraft created a complex mythos of non-human beings inspired in part by cults in various parts of the world including those of the circumpolar Inuit and voodoo practitioners in Louisiana and Africa. He believed that primitive and non-Western peoples were guardians of esoteric knowledge that was either unknown to, or lost to, the modern Western world.

Another recurring theme in Lovecraft’s stories is the idea that descendants in a bloodline can never escape the stain of crimes committed by their forebears, at least if the crimes are atrocious enough. Descendants may be very far removed, both in place and in time (and in culpability), from the act itself, and yet, they may be haunted by the revenant past, e.g. “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Lurking Fear”, “Arthur Jermyn”, “The Alchemist”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

Often in Lovecraft’s works the protagonist is not in control of his own actions, or finds it impossible to change course. Many of his characters would be free from danger if they simply managed to run away; however, this possibility either never arises or is somehow curtailed by some outside force, such as in “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dreams in the Witch House”. Often his characters are subject to a compulsive influence from powerful malevolent or indifferent beings. As with the inevitability of one’s ancestry, eventually even running away, or death itself, provides no safety (“The Thing on the Doorstep”, “The Outsider”, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, etc.). In some cases, this doom is manifest in the entirety of humanity, and no escape is possible (“The Shadow Out of Time”).

Lovecraft was in part inspired by Oswald Spengler, whose pessimistic thesis of the decadence of the modern West formed a crucial element in Lovecraft’s overall anti-modern worldview. Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith in 1927: “It is my belief, and was so long before Spengler put his seal of scholarly proof on it, that our mechanical and industrial age is one of frank decadence.” Friedrich Nietzschewas also an influence. Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilization struggling against dark, primitive barbarism. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

In such stories, the curse is often a hereditary one, either because of interbreeding with non-humans (e.g., “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931)) or through direct magical influence (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”). Physical and mental degradation often come together; this theme of ‘tainted blood’ may represent concerns relating to Lovecraft’s own family history, particularly the death of his father due to what Lovecraft probably suspected to be a syphilitic disorder.

In other tales, an entire society is threatened by barbarism. Sometimes the barbarism comes as an external threat, with a civilized race destroyed in war (e.g., “Polaris”). Sometimes, an isolated pocket of humanity falls into decadence and atavism of its own accord (e.g., “The Lurking Fear”). But most often, such stories involve a civilized culture being gradually undermined by a malevolent underclass influenced by inhuman forces.

Race is the most controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy, expressed in many disparaging remarks against the various non-Anglo-Saxon races and cultures in his work. As he grew older, his original Anglo-Saxon racial worldview softened into a classism or elitism which regarded the superior race to include all those self-ennobled through high culture. While Lovecraft’s racism was directly influenced by the society of his day, especially the New England society he grew up in, his racial views are stronger than those in the society of his day, and failed to change as US culture began to moderate in this regard (at least in the northeast).

Lovecraft’s view of science was complex. At a time when people viewed science as limitless and powerful, Lovecraft imagined alternative potential and fearful outcomes. Lovecraft’s works are ruled by several distinct pantheons of deities (actually aliens worshiped as such by humans) who are either indifferent or actively hostile to humanity. Lovecraft’s actual philosophy has been termed “cosmic indifference.” Several of Lovecraft’s stories of the Old Ones (alien beings of the Cthulhu Mythos) propose alternate mythic human origins in contrast to those found in the creation stories of existing religions, expanding on a natural world view. For instance, in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” it is proposed that humankind was actually created as a slave race by the Old Ones, and that life on Earth as we know it evolved from scientific experiments abandoned by the Elder Things. Protagonist characters in Lovecraft are usually educated men, citing scientific and rationalist evidence to support their non-faith. “Herbert West – Reanimator” reflects on the atheism common in academic circles. In “The Silver Key”, the character Randolph Carter loses the ability to dream and seeks solace in religion but does not find it and ultimately loses faith.

Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in life. In 1932, he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory, I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”

Lovecraft’s writing, particularly the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, has influenced fiction authors including modern horror and fantasy writers. Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, Junji Ito, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, William S. Burroughs, and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences. Japan has also been significantly inspired and terrified by Lovecraft’s creations and thus even entered the manga and anime media. Chiaki J. Konaka is an acknowledged disciple and has participated in Cthulhu Mythos, expanding several Japanese versions. He is an anime scriptwriter who tends to add elements of cosmicism, and is credited for spreading the influence of Lovecraft among anime base. Along with Junji Ito, other influential manga artists have also been inspired by Lovecraft. Novelist and manga author, Hideyuki Kikuchi, incorporated a number of locations, beings and events from the works of Lovecraft into the manga Taimashin.

Because Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer we have scores of references in his writing to his food likes and dislikes. Rather than give you a recipe here’s a selection for your perusal and inspiration:

I’m not, however, a heavy eater—take only 2 meals per day, since my digestion raises hell if I try to eat oftener than once in 7 hours. In winter, when it’s too cold for me to go out much, I subsist largely on canned stuff. I always get my own breakfasts, anyway—doughnuts and cheese. I have financial economy in eating worked out to a fine art, and know the self-service lunch rooms where I can get the best bargains. I never spend more than $3.00 per week on food, and often not even nearly that.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Speaking of industrio-economic matters—let me assure you that a 2-or-3-dollar-a-week dietary programme need not involve even a particle of malnutrition of unpalatability if one but knew what to get and where to get it. The tin can and delicatessen conceal marvellous possibilities! Porridge? Mehercule! On the contrary, my tastes call for the most blisteringly high-seasoned materials conceivable, and for desserts as close to 100% C12H22O11 [sugar] as possible. Indeed, of this latter commodity I never employ less than four teaspoons in an average cup of coffee. Favourite dinners—Italian spaghetti, chili con carne, Hungarian goulash (save when I can get white meat of turkey with highly-seasoned dressing).

(to Mrs. Fritz Leiber, 20 December 1936)

Incidentally—not many doors away, on the other side of Willoughby St., I found a restaurant which specialises in home-baked beans. It was closed on Sunday, but I shall try it some time soon. Beans, fifteen cents, with pork, twenty cents. With Frankfort sausages, twenty-five cents. Yes—here is a place which will repay investigation!

(to Mrs. F.C. Clark, 20 May 1925)

…in New England we are very fond of baked yellow-eye beans…

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

How can anybody dislike cheese? And yet Little Belknap hates it as badly as you do! I don’t suppose you would like spaghetti if you don’t like cheese, for the two rather go together.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)

I like cheese, preferably of the common hard variety, medium strength. I hate Roquefort, dislike cottage cheese, just tolerate Camembert and Brie, and am neutral about Limburger—which latter I’ve tasted only once, at Whitehead’s a year ago last spring.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Hershey’s sweet chocolate is one of my favourite nibbles.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 9 December 1931)

I enjoy chocolate in nearly any form—cake, frosting, sweet milk chocolate, etc….

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

I like coffee exceedingly, but relish its imitation Postum just as much.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

I, too, am an enthusiastic potato-ite’—& guess I like the fried form best of all. Shake!

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)

But I more often take ice cream, of which my favourite flavours are vanilla & coffee (the latter hard to get outside New England) & my least relished common flavour is strawberry.

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

But as for jam or jelly—I am your utter opposite, for I like it so well that I pile on amounts thicker than the bread which sustains them!

(to J. Vernon Shea, 10 November 1931)

Of meats, I fancy I rather prefer beef for all-around consumption, but like most others pretty well. Fond of sausage—especially the old fashioned baked or fried sort. Like fowl—but white meat only. Can’t bear dark meat. My really favourite meal is the regular old New England turkey dinner, with highly seasoned dressing, cranberry sauce, onions, etc., and mince pie for dessert.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Pie is my favourite dessert, and blueberry (for summer) and mince (for winter) are my preferred kinds—with apple as a good all-year-round third. Like to take vanilla ice cream with apple and blueberry pie.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Like Italian cooking very much—especially spaghetti with meat-and-tomato sauce, utterly engulfed in a snowbank of grated Parmesan cheese.

(to Robert E. Howard, 7 November 1932)

Of other vegetables I like peas & onions, can tolerate cabbage & turnips, am neutral toward cauliflower, have no deep enmity toward carrots, prefer to dodge parsnips & asparagus, shun string beans & brussel sprouts & abominate spinach. I like rhubarb—& am also really fond of baked beans prepared in the ancient New England way…

(to J. Vernon Shea, 30 October 1931)

Jan 132017
 

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Today may, or may not be the birthday of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, also commonly referred to as Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff and G. I. Gurdjieff, an influential early 20th-century mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent, born in Armenia under Russian rule. Both the day of his birth and the year are mysteries. He once wrote that he was born on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day according to the Julian calendar which people infer is January 13th but a passport states that his date of birth was November 28th 1877.  People close to him (and his grave marker give 1872 as the year, and other sources say 1866. Given his penchant for inventing stories about himself and the people he met, there is no way of knowing, but today’s date is as good as any to celebrate a great man, and one of my heroes.

For me the most important aspect of Gurdjieff’s philosophy was that he believed in developing a kind of deep spirituality that was available to people in all walks of life, not just to those – such as monks or Sufis – who devoted all their lives to spirituality. Gurdjieff taught that most humans do not possess a unified mind-body consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. Gurdjieff described a method attempting to do so, calling the discipline “The Work” (that is, “work on oneself”) or “the Method.”

Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connexion with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result, humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.

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According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person— the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or “centers,” as Gurdjieff called them. As a result, these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three— the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and the US. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.

All I can do here is give a brief glimpse at the man and his teaching. You’ll have to read his works to get a better understanding, although they may not help much either. I first read his Meetings with Remarkable Men not long after it was published in English in 1963, and it took me a fair way into the book before I realized that rather than being what it claimed to be – namely, an autobiography and a description of profoundly spiritual men – it was mostly a series of tall tales, and nothing in it revealed anything directly about his philosophy or of the people he met. Every chapter ends with more or less the same ways – to the effect: “he told me the deepest thoughts which profoundly moved me, and which I will explain later.” I finally twigged that much of what he had written was a spoof when he described a trip across the Gobi desert which was obviously, and laughably, false.  Gurdjieff was nothing more or less than a complete paradox of a man, but he had many devoted disciples, as well as many students who fell away from him for one reason or another: usually his quixotic temperament and ideology. What I have gleaned of his philosophy over the years has left a lasting impression on me.

Gurdjieff (Russian: Гео́ргий Ива́нович Гурджи́ев, Greek: Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης, Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև) was born to a Caucasus Greek father, Ἰωάνης Γεωργιάδης (Yiannis Georgiades), and an Armenian mother, Evdokia, in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire in the Transcaucasus. The name Gurdjieff represents a Russified form of the Pontic Greek surname “Georgiades” (Greek: Γεωργιάδης).

Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which, from 1878 to 1918, was the administrative capital of the Russian ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire with extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory were home to an extremely diverse population: Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans and Doukhobors. Gurdjieff makes particular mention of the Yazidi community. Growing up in a multi-ethnic society, Gurdjieff became fluent in Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian, and Turkish, speaking the latter in a mixture of elegant Osmanli and some dialect. He later acquired “a working facility with several European languages.” Early influences on him included his father, a carpenter and amateur ashik or bardic poet, and the priest of the town’s Russian church, Dean Borsh, a family friend. As a boy Gurdjieff avidly read Russian-language scientific literature. Influenced by these writings, and having witnessed a number of phenomena that he could not explain, he formed the conviction that there existed a hidden truth not to be found in science or in mainstream religion.

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In early adulthood, according to his own account Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, and Rome before he returned to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in Meetings with Remarkable Men, which is not reliable – at all. He claims to have met dervishes, fakirs and descendants of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved at a monastery in Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative involving a map of “pre-sand Egypt” and culminating in an encounter with the “Sarmoung Brotherhood”, an organization that has never been definitively identified.

Gurdjieff wrote that he supported himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes (one of which he described as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries). In the book he says that it’s always possible to make money in business if one is shrewd.  On his reappearance after his travels, as far as the historical record is concerned, the ragged wanderer had transformed into a well-heeled businessman. His only autobiographical writing concerning this period is Herald of Coming Good, a work, if anything, even less reliable than Meetings.

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From 1913 to 1949, the chronology appears to be based on material that can be confirmed by primary documents, independent witnesses, cross-references and reasonable inference. On New Year’s Day in 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students, including his cousin, the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, and the eccentric Rachmilievitch. In the same year, he married the Polish Julia Ostrowska in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, Gurdjieff advertised his ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians,” and he supervised his pupils’ writing of the sketch “Glimpses of Truth.” In 1915, Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, and in 1916, he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, Olga, as students. At the time he had about 30 pupils. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East. The Fourth Way taught by Gurdjieff during this period was complex and metaphysical, partly expressed in scientific terminology.

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils. In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own way and attracting his own students. Subsequently the two men had a highly ambivalent relationship.

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Four months later, Gurdjieff’s eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May (as a part of the long-forgotten Armenian genocide). Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions and travelled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his “Sacred Dances.”

In 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tiflis. There, Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska; the Stjoernvals; the Hartmanns and the de Saltmarsh gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians.” Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later married the architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

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In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then took ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:

It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength

In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, including Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky’s many prominent pupils (notably his eventual editor and translator, A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. The once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion set in extensive grounds housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.

New pupils included C. S. Nott, René Zuber, Margaret Anderson and her ward Fritz Peters. The generally intellectual and middle-class types who were attracted to Gurdjieff’s teaching often found the Prieuré’s spartan accommodation and emphasis on hard labor in the grounds disconcerting. Gurdjieff was putting into practice his teaching that people need to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work. Older pupils noticed how the Prieuré teaching differed from the complex metaphysical “system” that had been taught in Russia. In addition to the physical hardships, his personal behavior towards pupils could be ferocious:

Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows…. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile—looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet— motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe that Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.

Starting in 1924, Gurdjieff made visits to North America, where he eventually received the pupils taught previously by A.R. Orage. In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against all medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally “disbanded” his institute on 26 August (although he dispersed only his “less dedicated” pupils), which he explained as an undertaking “in the future, under the pretext of different worthy reasons, to remove from my eyesight all those who by this or that make my life too comfortable.”

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After recovering, he began writing Beelzebub’s Tales, the first part of All and Everything in a mixture of Armenian and Russian. The book was deliberately convoluted and obscure, forcing the reader to “work” to find its meaning. He also composed it according to his own principles, writing in noisy cafes to force a greater effort of concentration.

In 1925, Gurdjieff’s mother died, and his wife developed cancer; she was to die in June 1926. Gurdjieff was in New York from November 1925 to the spring of 1926, when he succeeded in raising over $100,000. In all he made six or seven trips to the US. During them, he alienated a number of people with his brash and undisguised demands for money which some have interpreted in terms of his following the Malamatiyya technique of the Sufis, that is, deliberately attracting disapproval.

Despite his fund-raising efforts in the United States, the Prieuré operation ran into debt and was shut down in 1932. Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris. Known as The Rope, it comprised only women, many of them writers, many of whom were lesbians. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson and Enrico Caruso’s widow, Dorothy. Gurdjieff became acquainted with Gertrude Stein through Rope members, but she was never a follower.

In 1935, Gurdjieff stopped work on All and Everything. He had completed the first two parts of the planned trilogy but only started on the Third Series (later published under the title Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’.) In 1936, he settled in an apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels-Renard in Paris, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. In 1937, his brother Dmitry died, and The Rope disbanded.

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Although the apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard was very small for the purpose, he continued to teach groups of pupils throughout World War II. Visitors recalled the pantry, stocked with an extraordinary collection of eastern delicacies, which served as his inner sanctum, and the suppers he held with elaborate toasts to “idiots” in vodka and cognac. His teaching was now far removed from the original “system”, being based on proverbs, jokes and personal interaction, although pupils were required to read, three times if possible, copies of Beelzebub’s Tales.

After the war, Gurdjieff tried to reconnect with his former pupils. Ouspensky was reluctant, but after his death (October 1947), his widow advised his remaining pupils to see Gurdjieff in Paris. J. G. Bennett also visited from England, the first meeting for 25 years. Ouspensky’s pupils in England had all thought that Gurdjieff was dead. They discovered he was alive only after the death of Ouspensky, who had not told them that Gurdjieff was still living. They were overjoyed to hear so, and many of Ouspensky’s pupils including Rina Hands, Basil Tilley and Catherine Murphy visited Gurdjieff in Paris. Hands and Murphy worked on the typing and retyping of the forthcoming All and Everything.

Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948 but again made an unexpected recovery:

With iron-like tenacity, he managed to gain his room, where he sat down and said: “Now all organs are destroyed. Must make new”. Then, he turned to Bennett, smiling: “Tonight you come dinner. I must make body work”. As he spoke, a great spasm of pain shook his body and blood gushed from an ear. Bennett thought: “He has a cerebral haemorrhage. He will kill himself if he continues to force his body to move”. But then he reflected: “He has to do all this. If he allows his body to stop moving, he will die. He has power over his body”.

Gurdjieff died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral took place at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Avon (near Fontainebleau).

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Eating was a supremely important act for Gurdjieff.  He insisted that, “Man should eat, not as an animal, but consciously.” He chose eating as the one experience that all human beings share:

When you do a thing, do it with the whole self, one thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do—in everything. To be able to do one thing at a time—this is the property of man, not man in quotation marks.

If one knows how to eat properly, one knows how to pray.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly-blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

When I eat, I self-remember.

Thomas de Hartmann also tells us that:

To taste life fully was one of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles. During our life with him we tried every sort of eastern dish, some very exotic. He told us that in the East they have always paid particular attention to the refinement of food elements. The aim is not to gorge oneself under the table, but rather to sample, in tiny portions, all kinds of variation of taste experiences. I can still see him vividly, his muscles completely relaxed as always. Slowly he lifts to his mouth a very good pear, not peeled. Unhurried, he takes a bite of it as if striving to absorb its entire aroma, it’s entire taste.

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Given the foregoing it’s a bit difficult to suggest a single recipe to celebrate Gurdjieff’s life. Anything from an unpeeled apple to an enormous Chinese banquet would work because it’s less in what you eat as in how you eat it that is the key to Gurdjieff’s method. In that light I will give you some insight into Armenian cuisine, since Gurdjieff was Armenian.  I have mentioned Armenian cooking once before: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jude-the-obscure/

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Armenians will stuff just about anything (with anything). This recipe is for a stuffed leg of lamb, but you can just as easily use lamb breast. The array of herbs, spices, and other flavors meets Gurdjieff’s desire for richness of cuisine. You should probably drink lots of vodka, brandy, or calvados with the meal if you want to follow in Gurdjieff’s footsteps.

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Armenian Stuffed Lamb

Ingredients

1 (5 -6 lb) leg of lamb, semiboned (shank bone left in,)

Marinade

3 garlic cloves, cut into 12 slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp dried mint
2 tsp dried oregano
salt and freshly ground pepper

Stuffing

3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup minced celery
1 cup long-grain rice
3 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsp dried currants
freshly ground pepper
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp cinnamon

Instructions

Marinate the lamb by first making 12 small incisions on the outside surface and inserting the garlic slivers. Then combine the oil, lemon juice, mint, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Place the lamb in a non-reactive dish and spread the marinade evenly over the inside and outside surfaces. Let the meat stand covered at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.

Make the stuffing about an hour or so before roasting the lamb. Melt the butter in large saucepan or deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and sauté until soft but not browned. Stir in the rice, pine nuts and parsley. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice turns opaque (2-3 minutes). Gradually stir in the broth then add the currants and pepper to taste. Heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer covered until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the allspice and cinnamon while fluffing the rice with a fork. Let the stuffing cool at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 475°F/250°C.

Stuff the open pocket of the lamb with about 2 cups of stuffing. Press the open ends together and tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string. Place the lamb on a rack in roasting pan. Spoon the remaining stuffing into a small casserole and set aside.

Roast the lamb until browned (about 15 minutes) then reduce the heat to 350°F/175°C. Carefully pour 1½ cups of water into the pan. Continue to roast, basting every 15 minutes, for about 45 minutes. Fifteen minutes before the lamb is done, spoon 2 tablespoons of pan juices over the stuffing in the casserole and bake in the oven until heated through. Transfer the lamb to carving board and let stand covered with a tent of foil for 15-20 minutes.

Spoon the fat from the pan juices, then heat the to a rapid boil, scraping loose the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Strain into a sauceboat.

Slice the lamb into ½” thick slices and serve with the stuffing and pan juices.

Aug 312016
 

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Today is the birthday (1821) of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz a Prussian physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several widely varied areas of modern science. In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science. Some of his ideas are a bit spaced out and are not widely supported, or even known, any more. But there’s no question that Helmholtz had a fertile mind.

Helmholtz’ father, Ferdinand, had been in the Prussian army fighting against Napoleon, but, despite an excellent university education he preferred to teach in a secondary school in Potsdam, which left the family struggling financially.  Ferdinand was an artistic man and under his influence Hermann grew up to have a strong love of music and painting, which he then put to use in his contemplation of the unity of a number of investigations, especially physics and aesthetics. It’s in this area that I most know his work.

Hermann attended Potsdam Gymnasium where his father taught philology and classical literature. His interests at school were mainly in physics and he would have liked to have studied that subject at university. But the financial position of the family, however, meant that he could not go to university unless he received a scholarship. Financial support of this kind was not available for physics so his father persuaded him to study medicine which was supported by the government.

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In 1837 Helmholtz was awarded a government grant to enable him to study medicine at the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin. He did not receive the money without strings attached, however, and he had to sign a document promising to work for ten years as a doctor in the Prussian army after graduating. In 1838 he began his studies in Berlin. Although he was officially studying at the Institute of Medicine and Surgery, being in Berlin he had the opportunity of attending courses at the University. He took this chance, attending lectures in chemistry and physiology.

Given Helmholtz’s contributions to mathematics later in his career it would be reasonable to have expected him to have taken mathematics courses at the University of Berlin at this time. However he did not, rather he studied mathematics on his own, reading works by Laplace, Biot and Daniel Bernoulli. He also read philosophy works at this time, particularly the works of Kant. His research career began in 1841 when he began work on his dissertation. He rejected the direction which physiology had been taking which had been based on “vital forces” which were not physical in nature. Helmholtz strongly argued for founding physiology completely on the principles of physics and chemistry, and ultimately this approach led to his contemporary fame.

Helmholtz graduated from the Medical Institute in Berlin in 1843 and was assigned to a military regiment at Potsdam, but spent all his spare time doing research. His work concentrated on showing that muscle force was derived from chemical and physical principles. If some “vital force” were present, he argued, then perpetual motion would become possible. In 1847 he published his ideas in his paper “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” which laid down the mathematical principles behind the conservation of energy.

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Helmholtz argued in favor of the conservation of energy using both philosophical and physical arguments. He based many ideas on earlier works by Sadi Carnot, Clapeyron, Joule and others. That philosophical arguments came right up front in this work was typical of all of Helmholtz’s contributions. He argued that physical scientists had to conduct experiments to find general law. In that way science

 … endeavours to ascertain the unknown causes of processes from their visible effects; it seeks to comprehend them according to the laws of causality. … Theoretical natural science must, therefore, if it is not to rest content with a partial view of the nature of things, take a position in harmony with the present conception of the nature of simple forces and the consequences of this conception. Its task will be completed when the reduction of phenomena to simple forces is completed, and when it can at the same time be proved that the reduction given is the only one possible which the phenomena will permit.

He then showed that the hypothesis that work could not be continually produced out of nothing inevitably led to the principle of the conservation of kinetic energy. This principle he then applied to a variety of different situations. He demonstrated that in various situations where energy appears to be lost, it is, in fact, converted into heat energy. This happens in collisions, expanding gases, muscle contraction, electrostatics, galvanic phenomena and electrodynamics. The paper was quickly viewed as an important contribution and played a major role in Helmholtz’ career. The following year he was released from his obligation to serve as an army doctor so that he could accept the vacant chair of physiology at Königsberg.

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His career progressed rapidly in Königsberg. He published important work on physiological optics and physiological acoustics. He received great acclaim for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851 and rapidly gained a strong international reputation.  In 1855 he was appointed to the vacant chair of anatomy and physiology in Bonn, but because his approach to physiology as a matter of physics and chemistry and not “magic,” he got a lot of complaints from traditionalist students, and wound up at Heidelberg University in 1858 where they promised to set up a new physiology institute for him.

Some of his most important work was carried out while he held this post in Heidelberg. He studied mathematical physics and acoustics producing a major study in 1862 which looked at musical theory and the perception of sound. In mathematical appendices he advocated the use of Fourier series. In 1843 Ohm had stated the fundamental principle of physiological acoustics, concerned with the way in which one hears combination tones. Helmholtz explained the origin of music on the basis of his fundamental physiological hypotheses. He formulated a resonance theory of hearing which provided a physiological explanation of Ohm’s principle. He also explained why you get a note when you blow across the neck of a bottle, and why the note changes depending on how much liquid is in the bottle. Technically this is called a Helmholtz resonator.

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From around 1866 Helmholtz began to move away from physiology and move more towards physics. When the chair of physics in Berlin became vacant in 1870 he indicated his interest in the position and in 1871 he took up this post. He had begun to investigate the properties of non-Euclidean space around the time his interests were turning towards physics in 1867. This led Helmholtz to question the adequacy of Euclidean geometry to describe the physical world, and, in general, broadened his thinking into the realms of philosophy.

There’s more but I’ll stop. I’ve probably already caused a few glassy eyes. On the one hand, Helmholtz revolutionized many scientific fields because he was a true polymath at a time when scientific fields were becoming narrower and narrower in their focus. Many would do well to follow his lead, but this is virtually impossible in today’s highly professionalized and specialized world. Occasionally these days physicists stumble on ancient Chinese philosophy and the like, and you get a bit of playful synthesis. But it does not to amount to anything of any importance. A person of Helmholtz’ stature might do better nowadays, but with so much technical matter to cover this may be impossible. Pity. Helmholtz was driving down a path to show that the natural science of the physical would eventually explain EVERYTHING from the motion of objects to the aesthetic appreciation of color and sound. Good luck with that. The science of the 19th century is simply not up to the task; nor that of the 21st century in my oh so humble opinion. I believe we need a new paradigm, which I doubt will be forthcoming in my lifetime. I will give Helmholtz A++ for effort though (generous of me, I know).

Potsdam, Helmholtz’ birthplace, was the capital of Prussia, but ceded its central place to neighboring Berlin when Germany was unified in Helmholtz’ lifetime, although Potsdam remained the residence of the Kaisers until 1918. As with other manufactured nations, we can speak of German cuisine as a whole, which notion has some merit, but also blurs over regional distinctions. The fact is, though, that certain dishes are universal, and the potato, which was popularized by Frederick the Great of Prussia dominates to this day. So, I suggest German potato pancakes, Kartoffelpuffer, which are widespread in German cuisine. I’ve never used a recipe, but I’ll give you one for completeness. The main issue is that the potatoes are grated raw, so you need the right quantity of egg and flour to bind the potatoes together, otherwise they will fall apart when cooked. Trust me – I know this. In Prussia they are served as a side dish with meat or with applesauce as a sweet dish.

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Kartoffelpuffer

Ingredients

1 kg/2 lb potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
1 onion, peeled and grated
2 large eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
vegetable oil

Instructions

Drain all excess moisture from the potatoes but do not squeeze them dry. This will ruin the taste.

Mix the potatoes, onion, and egg together in a bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add enough flour, a little at a time, to absorb any excess moisture in the potatoes.

Divide the mixture into 8 and shape each portion into flat, round patties. Place the patties individually on trays, and  let them rest in the refrigerator for at least 30-45 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the kartoffelpuffer in small batches, flipping once so that they are golden brown on both sides and cooked through. This part takes some practice. Don’t be tempted to cook them too quickly, or they will not cook all the way through.

Aug 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1632) of John Locke FRS, an English philosopher and physician, one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and in particular, influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, along with many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and North American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke’s theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa), and that contrary to Cartesian philosophy which postulated the existence of innate ideas, Locke proposed instead that knowledge is determined only by experience derived from sense perception.

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Locke’s professional trajectory is indicative of how different the 17th century was from the modern era. Locke was born in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol. Soon after Locke’s birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton. In 1647, Locke was sent to  Westminster School and then was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in the autumn of 1652 at the age of 20. Although a capable student he was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum that focused on the classics, and preferred the works of contemporary philosophers, such as René Descartes. Through his friend Richard Lower, whom he knew from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.

After taking a bachelor’s degree in he was awarded a bachelor of medicine in February 1675, having studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford and having worked with the likes of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In 1666, he met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue. Locke’s medical knowledge was put to the test when Shaftesbury’s liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo surgery (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life. Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury’s home at Exeter House in London, to serve as Lord Ashley’s personal physician. In London, Locke resumed his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham who encouraged his philosophical bent.

I consider the so-called “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” to be a productive turn for philosophy and science in some respects, but probably ultimately a fatal one for Western civilization. Time will tell. The trajectory we are on looks decidedly abysmal. Locke was a leader in this march of “progress.” He was a champion of using experience to guide reason, but he was unaware of the hopeless limits of his own experience. You can’t just reason your way into any valuable insights into humans in the “state of nature,” for example. You need some concrete evidence. Making extrapolations from the social and political world around you won’t tell you about the distant past, no matter how precise your “reason” is.

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Locke led Western philosophy down a path I have been skeptical of since I was an undergraduate. That’s why I became an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Ethnocentrism is the great curse of Locke’s path, as it is of so many Westerners in general, now as then. Pondering the social and political realities of 17th century Europe may have led to some useful outcomes in terms of reform and rebellion against the old order. But it was hopeless in the service of wider causes. Within the limits of his own experience, Locke was a decent philosopher. Here’s some quotes:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in; those who have read of everything, are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

The necessity of believing without knowledge . . .  should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

There is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.

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Locke died on 28 October 1704, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. He never married nor had children. His epitaph is in Latin, but was translated thus:

Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.

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As a good demonstration of my general attitude that we cannot assume that we know other cultures just by employing rational thought to limited evidence, I give you this recipe from A True Gentlewomans Delight, (1653) – maybe the kind of broth that Locke supped on in the rich households in frequented.

To make stewed Broth.

Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.

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The language is more or less clear. You just need to know that sack is fortified wine imported from Spain or the Canary Islands, one style of which we now call sherry. Saunders is a food dye made from red sandalwood. The quantities are reasonably precise, so have at it. Or maybe a soup of mutton, spices, currants, raisins, prunes, wine, and sugar is not to your tastes. Why not? Locke was human and so are you. Surely you like similar things? Christmas mincemeat is about the last vestige in modern British cuisine of this style of cooking. The “meat” part of “mincemeat” is your hint that it was once made with real meat and not just suet. I’ve made it with venison, in fact, according to a 19th century recipe. But I served it in a pie as dessert, not as a main course. Sweet mutton soup is not appearing on my table any time

May 092016
 

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Today is the birthday (1883) of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and essayist who is not exactly a household name in the Western world partly because much of his work has not been translated and its tenor is distinctly Spanish. Furthermore, his work tends to be grouped with more mainstream writers, which, I believe, is a mistake.

Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid where his father was director of the newspaper El Imparcial, founded by his mother’s family. His family was part of Spain’s fin de siècle liberal and educated bourgeoisie which colored Ortega’s life and work. Ortega was educated in various schools and universities around Spain from 1891 to 1904, ending up with a doctorate from the Central University of Madrid (now Complutense University of Madrid). From 1905 to 1907, he continued his studies in Germany at Leipzig, Nuremberg, Cologne, Berlin and, Marburg. On his return to Spain in 1908, he was appointed professor of Psychology, Logic and Ethics at the Escuela Superior del Magisterio de Madrid, and in October 1910 he was appointed to the chair of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid.

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In 1917 he became a contributor to the newspaper El Sol, where he published, as a series of essays, his two principal works: España invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain) and La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses). The latter made him internationally famous. He founded the Revista de Occidentes in 1923, remaining its director until 1936. This publication promoted translation of (and commentary upon) the most important figures and tendencies in philosophy, including Oswald Spengler, Johan Huizinga, Edmund Husserl, Georg Simmel, Jakob von Uexküll, Heinz Heimsoeth, Franz Brentano, Hans Driesch, Ernst Müller, Alexander Pfänder, and Bertrand Russell.

Ortego was elected deputy for the Province of León in the constituent assembly of the Second Spanish Republic and was the leader of a parliamentary group of intellectuals known as Agrupación al Servicio de la República (“The Group in the Service of the Republic”). Eventually he became disillusioned with politics, and left Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War.  He spent his years of exile in Buenos Aires until moving back to Europe in 1942.  In 1948 he returned to Madrid, where he founded the Institute of Humanities, at which he lectured.

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It’s really difficult to peg Ortega’s belief system, not least because his work does not translate well. That fact is undoubtedly true of all continental philosophy. Let’s take his most famous phrase, “yo soy yo y mi circunstancia.” Sure you can translate this as “I am myself and my circumstances” and that gets at a part of what he is trying to convey – but it misses part of it too. Perhaps I can sum up his philosophy, simplistically as always, by saying that Ortega sees the individual (and reality) as the collision of a host of internal and external factors. There is no ‘me’ without things, and things are nothing without me. There is a continual dialectical interaction between the person and his or her “circumstances.”

Ortega wrote that life is at the same time fate and freedom, and that freedom “is being free inside of a given fate. Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny.” Within an inexorable fate we must be active and create a “project of life”— not be like those who live a conventional life of customs and given structures and who prefer an unconcerned and imperturbable life because they are afraid of the duty of choosing a life path of their own.

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Ortega turned Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” on its head and asserted “I live therefore I think”.  Absolute truth does exist; only a summation of different perspectives. Ortega coined the term “razón vital” (“living reason” or “reason with life as its foundation”) to refer to a new type of reason that constantly questions in order to create a project of life. I can’t convey much of this agenda in a short post, but here’s a few quotes:

Each species builds up its stock of useful habits by selecting among, and taking advantage of, the innumerable useless actions which a living being performs out of sheer exuberance.

Humanity’s being is made of such strange stuff as to be partly akin to nature and partly not, at once natural and extranatural, a kind of ontological centaur, half immersed in nature, half transcending it.

We are physical emigrants on a pilgrimage of being, and it is accordingly meaningless to set limits to what we are capable of being.

You get the idea. I find Ortega quite inspirational. He decried the 20th century’s blind faith in science as the solution to all ills, and the sole arbiter of reason and truth. I see that, along with a host of other great thinkers, as the deadly inheritance of the Enlightenment followed by the Industrial Revolution. Sure, we can do amazing things now with our technology, but trust in technology and the path of modern science alone is ultimately limiting and (literally) soul destroying.

Madrid is a foodie city of a certain type. Spanish cuisine has been described as “meat and potatoes” but I’m inclined to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh in saying, “yes, but never mind the potatoes.” Spanish food is heavily dominated by protein  — meat first, followed by eggs and cheese. My first meal in Madrid was half a rabbit (head and all) with a few vegetables as an afterthought. I frequented tapas bars in the evenings where meat and egg dishes predominate.

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Callos a la Madrileña is a favorite of mine (and of old-school Madrileñas) – ox tripe, chorizo, and blood sausage in a paprika-laced broth. I’ll spare you the recipe. In any case, you need to find it in Madrid in order to get the proper ingredients. Both chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) come in a wealth of varieties. I used to make it in Buenos Aires, but it had a distinct Argentine tinge. The classic Madrid home cooked dish is cocido Madrileño, akin to pot au feu, bollito misto etc – that is, dump meat and vegetables of choice into a pot and simmer for hours. Recipe here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/autogyro/ .

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A very popular dish in homes and restaurants in Madrid is huevos rotos, which translates as “broken eggs.” It can be eaten for lunch or dinner, even though it looks like a breakfast dish to Anglos. You’ll need potatoes, meat, and eggs.  The meat is normally local ham (such as jamón Serrano), sliced very thinly, but can also be sliced chorizo or morcilla. Peel and cut the potatoes into strips and shallow fry them in olive oil. Drain and keep them warm on a heated plate. Fry one or two eggs per person in the olive oil, so that the white is firm but the yolk is runny. Lay the ham over the potatoes and place the eggs on top. To eat huevos rotos, break the yolk with a knife or a piece of bread, and let it run over the ham and potatoes.

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Frying the perfect egg for huevos rotos is an art that takes practice. You should heat the oil over medium heat only.  Break the egg into the pan, and gently flip some of the oil over the white as it cooks. It’s best if you do one egg at a time and serve them immediately. If the oil is too hot the white will brown and crisp (which you do not want). The white should be cooked through. In the U.S. it is customary to flip the egg (“over easy”), but in Europe they do not do this. The white can be fully cooked if you are careful.

May 052016
 

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Today is the birthday (1813) of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who was an early contributor to what became known as existentialism. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a “single individual”, giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. He was opposed to easy answers and, therefore to critics who summed up idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time: Swedenborg, Hegel, Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel and Hans Christian Andersen he felt were all “understood” far too quickly by “scholars.”

Kierkegaard’s theological work covers a broad spectrum: Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, humans and God, and the individual’s subjective relationship to Jesus the Christ, which for Kierkegaard came through faith. Much of this work entails Christian love. He was extremely critical of the practice of Christianity as a state religion, primarily that of the Church of Denmark. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices.

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Kierkegaard’s early work was written under various pseudonyms that he used to present distinctive viewpoints and to interact with each other in complex dialogue. He explored particularly complex problems from different viewpoints, each under a different pseudonym. He wrote many Upbuilding Discourses under his own name and dedicated them to the “single individual” who might want to discover the meaning of his works. Notably, he wrote: “Science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way. Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject.” While scientists learn about the world by observation, Kierkegaard emphatically denied that observation could reveal the inner workings of the world of the spirit.

Kierkegaard’s wrote in Danish and his works were initially limited to Scandinavia. By the turn of the 20th century, however, his major works had been translated into major European languages, so that by the mid-20th century, his thought exerted a substantial influence on philosophy and theology.

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I won’t try to summarize Kierkegaard’s work because that would do him an injustice. Instead here are a few quotations to give you an idea.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

Once you label me you negate me.

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.

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I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and  wanted to shoot myself.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.

I have never fought in such a way as to say: I am the true Christian, others are not Christians. No, my contention has been this: I know what Christianity is, my imperfection as a Christian I myself fully recognize — but I know what Christianity is.

It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.

A man’s personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth, whether it is spoken by Balaam’s ass or a sniggering wag or an apostle or an angel.

Job endured everything — until his friends came to comfort him, then he grew impatient.

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One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?

To say that I understand Kierkegaard would be to go against the very nature of his work. Rather, there are points he makes on which I concur. Chief of these is that it is incumbent on each individual to THINK, and not to accept blindly what you are told. His notion of “truth for me” for example, is not what most moderns believe when they use the phrase – “if I believe it, it is true.” He is saying that you cannot simply assent to truth as purveyed by others: you must OWN it by working it out for yourself.

I see Kierkegaard as a precursor of Freud in that his notion of owning the truth involves knowing oneself. For Kierkegaard self knowledge requires concentrated reflection on oneself, preferably in isolation. I am sympathetic to this notion because it is exactly what I do. Since the death of my wife nine years ago, I have lived alone, and have increasingly used my time alone to reflect on all manner of things.  This is not a skill that can be learned; you have to work it out for yourself, perhaps with writers such as Kierkegaard as guides. Friendships, relationships, and the like, can be helpful, but they can also be distractions that get in the way of self reflection. Read Kierkegaard for yourself and you will see what I mean.

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Danish cuisine can be colorful, but is often rather bland. I’ve mentioned smørrebrød, open faced sandwiches, several times before, and you can certainly get creative with them, heaping all manner of toppings on to dark rye bread for a base. For example:

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Today I am interested in æggekage (lit. egg cake), which is very similar to English batter pudding or traditional Argentine tortilla, that is, a mix of milk, flour, and eggs that is fried and baked in a heavy skillet with various toppings. My basic recipe for the egg mixture is presented in this video:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bx9zQ-sRgAkQMEpmZkVZLUJsR1U/edit?usp=sharing

Toppings can be savory or sweet. I made an apple æggekage this morning. First, I chopped one apple coarsely (without peeling), and sautéed it in a little butter and sugar until the pieces took on color.

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Then I made the batter (as per the video), and poured it over the apples whilst the pan was still warm, and cooked the bottom a little.

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Then I finished it off in a hot oven sprinkled with a little sugar and cinnamon.

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For breakfast I ate some slices straight from the pan. For lunch I re-heated the remainder on the stove with a few sliced tomatoes and bacon.