Feb 182018
 

Today is the birthday (1838) of Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach, Austrian physicist and philosopher. The ratio of an object’s speed to that of sound is named the Mach number in his honor. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and American pragmatism. Through his criticism of Newton’s theories of space and time, he foreshadowed Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Mach was born in Chrlice (German: Chirlitz) in Moravia (then in the Austrian empire, now part of Brno in the Czech Republic). His father, who had attended Charles University in Prague, acted as tutor to the noble Brethon family in Zlín in eastern Moravia. Up to the age of 14, Mach received his education at home from his parents. He then entered a Gymnasium in Kroměříž (German: Kremsier), where he studied for 3 years. In 1855 he became a student at the University of Vienna. There he studied physics and medical physiology, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1860 under Andreas von Ettingshausen with a thesis titled “Über elektrische Ladungen und Induktion”, and his habilitation the following year. His early work focused on the Doppler effect in optics and acoustics. In 1864 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Graz, having turned down the position of a chair in surgery at the University of Salzburg to do so, and in 1866 he was appointed as Professor of Physics. During that period, Mach continued his work in psycho-physics and in sensory perception. In 1867, he took the chair of Experimental Physics at the Charles University, Prague, where he stayed for 28 years before returning to Vienna.

Mach’s main contribution to physics involved his description and photographs of spark shock-waves and then ballistic shock-waves. He described how when a bullet or shell moved faster than the speed of sound, it created a compression of air in front of it. Using schlieren photography, he and his son Ludwig were able to photograph the shadows of the invisible shock waves. During the early 1890s Ludwig was able to invent an interferometer which allowed for much clearer photographs. But Mach also made many contributions to psychology and physiology, including his anticipation of gestalt phenomena, his discovery of the oblique effect and of Mach bands, an inhibition-influenced type of visual illusion, and especially his discovery of a non-acoustic function of the inner ear which helps control human balance.

One of the best-known of Mach’s ideas is the so-called “Mach principle,” the name given by Einstein to an imprecise hypothesis often credited to the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. The idea is that local inertial frames are determined by the large-scale distribution of matter, as exemplified by this anecdote:

You are standing in a field looking at the stars. Your arms are resting freely at your side, and you see that the distant stars are not moving. Now start spinning. The stars are whirling around you and your arms are pulled away from your body. Why should your arms be pulled away when the stars are whirling? Why should they be dangling freely when the stars don’t move?

Mach’s principle says that this is not a coincidence—that there is a physical law that relates the motion of the distant stars to the local inertial frame. If you see all the stars whirling around you, Mach suggests that there is some physical law which would make it so you would feel a centrifugal force. There are a number of rival formulations of the principle. It is often stated in vague ways, like “mass out there influences inertia here”. A very general statement of Mach’s principle is “local physical laws are determined by the large-scale structure of the universe.” This concept was a guiding factor in Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity. Einstein realized that the overall distribution of matter would determine the metric tensor, which tells you which frame is rotationally stationary

Mach also became well known for his philosophy developed in close interplay with his science. Mach defended a type of phenomenalism recognizing only sensations as real. This position seemed incompatible with the view of atoms and molecules as external, mind-independent things. He famously declared, after an 1897 lecture by Ludwig Boltzmann at the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna: “I don’t believe that atoms exist!” From about 1908 to 1911 Mach’s reluctance to acknowledge the reality of atoms was criticized by Max Planck as being incompatible with physics. Einstein’s 1905 demonstration that the statistical fluctuations of atoms allowed measurement of their existence without direct individuated sensory evidence marked a turning point in the acceptance of atomic theory. Some of Mach’s criticisms of Newton’s position on space and time influenced Einstein, but later Einstein realized that Mach was basically opposed to Newton’s philosophy and concluded that his physical criticism was not sound.

In 1898 Mach suffered from cardiac arrest and in 1901 retired from the University of Vienna and was appointed to the upper chamber of the Austrian parliament. On leaving Vienna in 1913 he moved to his son’s home in Vaterstetten, near Munich, where he continued writing and corresponding until his death in 1916, only one day after his 78th birthday.

Most of Mach’s initial studies in the field of experimental physics concentrated on the interference, diffraction, polarization and refraction of light in different media under external influences. From there followed important explorations in the field of supersonic fluid mechanics. Mach and physicist-photographer Peter Salcher presented their paper on this subject in 1887; it correctly describes the sound effects observed during the supersonic motion of a projectile. They deduced and experimentally confirmed the existence of a shock wave of conical shape, with the projectile at the apex. The ratio of the speed of a fluid to the local speed of sound vp/vs is now called the Mach number. It is a critical parameter in the description of high-speed fluid movement in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics.

From 1895 to 1901, Mach held a newly created chair for “the history and philosophy of the inductive sciences” at the University of Vienna. In his historico-philosophical studies, Mach developed a phenomenalistic philosophy of science which became influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. He originally saw scientific laws as summaries of experimental events, constructed for the purpose of making complex data comprehensible, but later emphasized mathematical functions as a more useful way to describe sensory appearances. Thus, scientific laws while somewhat idealized have more to do with describing sensations than with reality as it exists beyond sensations.

In accordance with empirio-critical philosophy, Mach opposed Ludwig Boltzmann and others who proposed an atomic theory of physics. Since one cannot observe things as small as atoms directly, and since no atomic model at the time was consistent, the atomic hypothesis seemed to Mach to be unwarranted, and perhaps not sufficiently “economical”. Mach had a direct influence on the Vienna Circle philosophers and the school of logical positivism in general.

According to Alexander Riegler, Ernst Mach’s work was a precursor to the influential perspective known as constructivism. Constructivism holds that all knowledge is constructed rather than received by the learner. He took an exceptionally non-dualist, phenomenological position. The founder of radical constructivism, von Glasersfeld, gave a nod to Mach as an ally.

In 1873, independently of each other Mach and the physiologist and physician Josef Breuer discovered how the sense of balance (i.e., the perception of the head’s imbalance) functions, tracing its management by information which the brain receives from the movement of a fluid in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. That the sense of balance depended on the three semicircular canals was discovered in 1870 by the physiologist Friedrich Goltz, but Goltz did not discover how the balance-sensing apparatus functioned. Mach devised a swivel chair to enable him to test his theories, and Floyd Ratliff has suggested that this experiment may have paved the way to Mach’s critique of a physical conception of absolute space and motion.

Mach’s home town of Brno is in Moravia which is now part of the Czech Republic, and much of the cuisine is common to the nation as a whole. But there are some distinctive dishes. Moravian chicken pie is one. It can be made as a simple two-crust pie, but is often made with a crumb topping as well, as in this recipe.

Moravian Chicken Pie

Ingredients

Pie Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3⁄4 cup shortening
6 -8 tbsp cold water

Filling

2 ½ cups chopped cooked chicken
salt and pepper
3 tbsp flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 -2 tbsp butter, cut in small pieces

Crumb Topping

¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp butter

Instructions

For the pie crust: combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the shortening and pulse until the mixture is like coarse cornmeal. Gradually stir in cold water just until a dough forms. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Cover and chill 30 minutes, or until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C degrees.

Roll out one piece of dough to cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate and place in the plate. Roll out the second piece of dough for the top crust and set aside.

For the filling: combine all the ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the ingredients into the pie crust and top with the second crust, moisten the edges, and crimp to seal.

For the crumb topping: pulse the butter and flour in a food processor until it is like coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle the topping over the top crust of pie. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Bake the pie 45 minutes to 1 hour, until golden and bubbly.

 

Nov 242017
 

Today could be the birthday (1868) of Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime.” During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first, and most popular pieces, the “Maple Leaf Rag”, became ragtime’s first and most influential hit, and is often considered the archetypal rag. Here is a recording of Joplin himself playing “Maple Leaf Rag” from a piano roll:

Devotees of Joplin’s music and ragtime never forgot him when the ragtime era faded, but the general public did. He was restored to popularity in the 1970s when the movie, The Sting, featured “The Entertainer” as its theme tune.

According to author Edward A. Berlin, “One tenacious myth tells us that Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas, on November 24, 1868. The location is easily dispensed with: Texarkana was not established until 1873.” But, based on a letter discovered by musicologist John Tennison in 2015 in the December 19, 1856 edition of the Times-Picayune, it is clear that Texarkana was established as a place-name at least as early as 1856. Consequently, it appears possible that Joplin, born 12 years later, could have been born in Texarkana. Despite evidence to support such a conclusion, some insist that Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, either in late 1867 or early 1868. He was the second of six children (the others being Monroe, Robert, William, Myrtle, and Ossie) born to Giles Joplin, an ex-slave from North Carolina, and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American woman from Kentucky.

No matter the debate about Scott’s birthplace, the Joplins did live in Texarkana where Giles worked as a laborer for the railroad and Florence was a cleaner. Joplin’s father had played the violin for plantation parties in North Carolina, and his mother sang and played the banjo. Joplin was given a rudimentary musical education by his family and from the age of seven, he was allowed to play the piano while his mother cleaned. At some point in the early 1880s, Giles Joplin left the family for another woman.

According to a family friend, the young Joplin was serious and ambitious, studying music and playing the piano after school. While a few local teachers aided him, he received most of his music education from Julius Weiss, a German-born American Jewish music professor who had immigrated to Texas in the late 1860s and was employed as music tutor to a prominent local business family. Weiss, as described by San Diego Jewish World writer Eric George Tauber, “was no stranger to [receiving] race hatred… As a German Jew, he was often slapped and called a “Christ-killer.” Weiss had studied music at university in Germany and was listed in town records as a professor of music. Impressed by Joplin’s talent, and realizing his family’s dire straits, Weiss taught him free of charge. He tutored the 11-year-old Joplin until he was 16, during which time Weiss introduced him to folk and classical music, including opera. Weiss helped Joplin appreciate music as an “art as well as an entertainment,” and helped his mother buy a used piano. According to Weiss’ wife, Lottie, Joplin never forgot Weiss. In his later years, after achieving fame as a composer, Joplin sent his former teacher “gifts of money when he was old and ill,” until Weiss died. At the age of 16, Joplin performed in a vocal quartet with three other boys in and around Texarkana, also playing piano. In addition, he taught guitar and mandolin.

In the late 1880s, having performed at various local events as a teenager, Joplin chose to give up work as a laborer with the railroad and left Texarkana to become a traveling musician. Little is known about his movements at this time, although he is recorded in Texarkana in July 1891 as a member of the Texarkana Minstrels in a performance that happened to be raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis, president of the Southern Confederacy. He soon discovered, however, that there were few opportunities for black pianists. Churches and brothels were among the few options for steady work. Joplin played pre-ragtime ‘jig-piano’ in various red-light districts throughout the mid-South, and some claim he was in Sedalia and St. Louis during this time.

In 1893 Joplin was in Chicago for the World’s Fair. While in Chicago, he formed his first band playing cornet and he also began arranging music for the group to perform. Although the World’s Fair minimized the involvement of African-Americans, black performers still came to the saloons, cafés and brothels that lined the fair. The exposition was attended by 27 million people from the US and had a profound effect on many areas of US cultural life, including ragtime. Although specific information is sparse, numerous sources have credited the Chicago World’s Fair with spreading the popularity of ragtime. Joplin found that his music, as well as that of other black performers, was popular with visitors. By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in US cities, and was described by the St. Louis Dispatch as “…a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”

In 1894 Joplin arrived in Sedalia, Missouri. At first, he stayed with the family of Arthur Marshall, at the time a 13-year-old boy but later one of Joplin’s students and a rag-time composer in his own right. There is, however, no record of Joplin having a permanent residence in the town until 1904, because he was making a living as a touring musician. There is little precise evidence known about Joplin’s activities at this time, although he performed as a solo musician at dances and at the major black clubs in Sedalia, the Black 400 club and the Maple Leaf Club. He performed in the Queen City Cornet Band, and his own six-piece dance orchestra. A tour with his own singing group, the Texas Medley Quartet, gave him his first opportunity to publish his own compositions and it is known that he went to Syracuse, New York and to Texas. Two businessmen from New York published Joplin’s first two works, the songs “Please Say You Will”, and “A Picture of her Face” in 1895. Joplin’s visit to Temple, Texas enabled him to have three pieces published there in 1896, including the “Great Crush Collision March”, which commemorated a planned train crash on the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad on September 15 that he may have witnessed. The March was described by one of Joplin’s biographers as a “special… early essay in ragtime.” While in Sedalia he was teaching piano to students who included future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden.

In 1899, Joplin married Belle, the sister-in-law of collaborator Scott Hayden. Although there were hundreds of rags in print by the time the “Maple Leaf Rag” was published, Joplin was in the thick of things very early on and quickly rose to dominance. His first published rag, “Original Rags”, had been completed in 1897, the same year as the first ragtime work in print, the “Mississippi Rag” by William Krell. The “Maple Leaf Rag” was likely to have been known in Sedalia before its publication in 1899; Brun Campbell claimed to have seen the manuscript of the work in around 1898. The exact circumstances that led to the Maple Leaf Rag’s publication are unknown, and a number of versions of the event contradict each other. After several unsuccessful approaches to publishers, Joplin signed a contract on August 10, 1899 with John Stillwell Stark, a retailer of musical instruments who later became his most important publisher. The contract stipulated that Joplin would receive a 1% royalty on all sales of the rag, with a minimum sales price of 25 cents. The “Maple Leaf Rag” served as a model for the hundreds of rags to come from future composers, especially in the development of classic ragtime. After the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin was soon being described as “King of rag time writers”, not least by himself.

After the Joplins moved to St. Louis in early 1900, they had a baby daughter who died only a few months after birth. Joplin’s relationship with his wife was difficult, as she had no interest in music. They eventually separated and then divorced.[40] About this time, Joplin collaborated with Scott Hayden in the composition of four rags. It was in St. Louis that Joplin produced some of his best-known works, including “The Entertainer”, “March Majestic”, and the short theatrical work “The Ragtime Dance”.

In June 1904, Joplin married Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, Arkansas, the young woman to whom he had dedicated “The Chrysanthemum”. She died on September 10, 1904, of complications resulting from a cold, ten weeks after their wedding. Joplin’s first work copyrighted after Freddie’s death, “Bethena”, was described by one biographer as “…an enchantingly beautiful piece that is among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”

During this time, Joplin created an opera company of 30 people and produced his first opera A Guest of Honor for a national tour. It is not certain how many productions were staged, or even if this was an all-black show or a racially mixed production. During the tour, either in Springfield, Illinois, or Pittsburg, Kansas, someone associated with the company stole the box office receipts. Joplin could not meet the company’s payroll or pay for its lodgings at a theatrical boarding house. It is believed that the score for A Guest of Honor was lost and perhaps destroyed because of non-payment of the company’s boarding house bill.

In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City, which he believed was the best place to find a producer for a new opera. After his move to New York, Joplin met Lottie Stokes, whom he married in 1909. In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing Treemonisha himself in piano-vocal format. In 1915, as a last-ditch effort to see it performed, he invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem. Poorly staged and with only Joplin on piano accompaniment, it was “a miserable failure” to a public not ready for “crude” black musical forms—so different from the European grand opera of that time. The audience, including potential backers, was indifferent and walked out. Scott writes that “after a disastrous single performance … Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out.” He concludes that few American artists of his generation faced such obstacles: “Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed, largely because Joplin had abandoned commercial music in favor of art music, a field closed to African Americans.” In fact, it was not until the 1970s that the opera received a full theatrical staging.

In 1914, Joplin and Lottie self-published his “Magnetic Rag” as the Scott Joplin Music Company, which he had formed the previous December. Biographer Vera Brodsky Lawrence speculates that Joplin was aware of his advancing deterioration due to syphilis and was “…consciously racing against time.” In her sleeve notes on the 1992 Deutsche Grammophon release of Treemonisha she notes that he “…plunged feverishly into the task of orchestrating his opera, day and night, with his friend Sam Patterson standing by to copy out the parts, page by page, as each page of the full score was completed.”

By 1916, Joplin was suffering from tertiary syphilis and a resulting descent into insanity. In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. He died there on April 1 of syphilitic dementia at the age of 49 and was buried in a pauper’s grave that remained unmarked for 57 years. His grave at Saint Michaels Cemetery in East Elmhurst was finally given a marker in 1974, the year The Sting, which showcased his music, won for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Some years ago I promised to give my pumpkin pie recipe on a post about Thanksgiving that featured brined and smoked turkey: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thanksgiving/  Well, I never did get around to publishing the recipe, but readers pushed me again this year, so I pulled it out of memory. It’s suitable for Joplin because it features maple syrup as a key ingredient, and maple and Joplin go together.  This recipe makes a great pie which I have produced for friends and family numerous times. I’m not a fan of pumpkin, but I enjoy this pie. My main advice, though, is that it can easily be ruined by being sloppy with your ingredients. Use real pumpkin puree if you can. All this takes is cutting the meat out of a pumpkin (perhaps left over from Halloween) and using a food processor to make it into a puree. Remove all the stringy bits. If you have to use tinned pumpkin make sure it is REAL pumpkin. Processing plants often sell winter squash and call it pumpkin. Winter squash pie is fine, but it is not pumpkin pie. Use the best 100% pure maple syrup, not some cheap sugar syrup mix. I always used the finest maple syrup, darkest possible, which I bought in Vermont direct from local producers. Make the spices freshly ground if you can, or buy the best. Sri Lankan “true” cinnamon beats all others. Sweetness here comes from the condensed milk, not sugar.

© Tío Juan’s Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients

16 oz pumpkin puree
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
9 inch unbaked pie crust
100% pure maple syrup
chopped filberts (hazel nuts)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 425˚F

Use a whisk or electric stand mixer to beat together the pumpkin, condensed milk, eggs, spices, and salt until you have a smooth creamy mixture. Pour the mixture into the pie crust. Bake for 15 minutes at 425˚F.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350˚F and continue baking for 20 minutes.

Very quickly drizzle the top of the pie with maple syrup, sprinkle with nuts, and return to the oven. Continue baking for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick pushed into the center comes out clean.

Serve hot or cold. Extra maple syrup and whipped cream won’t go amiss.

 

Jul 202017
 

Today is International Chess Day, as proposed by UNESCO because the International Chess Federation (FIDE) was founded on this date in 1924. It has been celebrated on this date since 1966. FIDE, which has 181 chess federations as its members, organizes chess events and competitions around the world on this day. A 2012 Yougov poll showed that “a surprisingly stable 70% of the adult population has played chess at some point during their lives.” The claim is that “the adult population” includes people “in countries as diverse as the US, UK, Germany, Russia, India.” I wouldn’t exactly call these countries “diverse” (with the possible exception of India) but I get the point. If the statistic holds true for my readership I don’t need to spend much time talking about how the modern game of chess works – not that I want to do that, anyway. Instead I’ll talk about some peripheral matters such as the historical antecedents to the game, its near and distant relatives, and some novel chess pieces.

Chess as we know it is generally believed to have evolved in Eastern India, c. 280–550, in the Gupta Empire, where an early form (in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga) (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally “four [military] divisions”  – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. From India the game spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. The earliest physical evidence of a chess-like game (that is, actual game pieces) is found in the nearby Sassanid Persia around 600, where the game came to be known by the name chatrang.

Chatrang was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–44), where it was then named shatranj, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names. In Spanish “shatranj” was rendered as ajedrez (“al-shatranj”), in Portuguese as xadrez, and in Greek as ζατρίκιον (zatrikion, which comes directly from the Persian chatrang), but in the rest of Europe it was replaced by versions of the Persian shāh (“king”), which evolved into the English words “check” and “chess.” The phrase shāh mat (“the king is dead”) became “checkmate.”

The oldest archaeological artifacts, believed to be actual chess pieces, were excavated in ancient Afrasiab (modern Samarkand), in Uzbekistan, and date to about 760, or possibly older. The oldest known chess manual was in Arabic and dates to 840–850, written by al-Adli ar-Rumi (800–870), a renowned Arab chess player, titled Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess). The original manuscript is lost, but it is referenced in later works. The eastern migration of chess, into China and Southeast Asia, has even less documentation than its migration west. The first reference to chess, called Xiang Qi, in China comes in the xuán guaì lù (玄怪录, “record of the mysterious and strange”) dating to about 800. A few scholars contend that modern chess evolved from Xiang Qi (Chinese chess) or one of its predecessors, but this is not the majority opinion.

Chess reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000, it had spread throughout Europe. Chess was Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century and is described in a famous 13th-century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon, and dice  entitled el libro de los juegos (the book of games).

Around 1200, the rules of shatranj started to be modified in southern Europe, and around 1475, several major changes made the game essentially as it is known today. These modern rules for the basic moves had been adopted in Italy and Spain. Pawns gained the option of advancing two squares on their first move, while bishops and queens acquired their modern abilities. The queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece towards the end of the 10th century and by the 15th century had become the most powerful piece; consequently modern chess was referred to as “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess.” Castling was also introduced, derived from the “kings leap” usually in combination with a pawn or rook move to bring the king to safety. These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe. The rules concerning stalemate (a draw when the king cannot move safely) were finalized in the early 19th century. Also in the 19th century, the convention that White moves first was established (formerly either White or Black could move first depending on chance). Finally, the rules concerning castling were standardized – variations in the castling rules had persisted in Italy until the late 19th century. The resulting standard game is sometimes referred to as Western chess or international chess, particularly in Asia where other games of the chess family such as xiangqi are still prevalent. Since the 19th century, the only rule changes have been technical in nature, for example establishing the correct procedure for claiming a draw by repetition.

The increased interest in the game of chess, particularly in international play during the late 18th century and early 19th century, brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model for chess pieces. The variety and styles of the conventional form, begun in the 15th century, had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the 19th century. Conventional types popular during the period included the English Barleycorn chess set, the St. George chess set, the French Regence chess set (named after the Café de la Régence in Paris) and the central European. Most pieces were tall, easily tipped and cumbersome during play, but their major disadvantage was the similarity of the pieces within a set. A player’s unfamiliarity with an opponent’s set could alter the outcome of a game.

By the early decades of the 19th century, it was all too clear that there was a great need for a chess set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by chess players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by the purveyors of fine games, John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers, of Hatton Garden, London England, was to become known as the Staunton chess set after Howard Staunton (1810–1874), the chess player and writer who was generally considered the strongest player in the world from 1843 to 1851. Although Nathaniel Cook has long been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law and owner of the firm, John Jaques.

A few variants of classic chess pop up now and again although they don’t have a lot of popularity.  Three-dimensional chess has a certain following, notably among fans of the original Star Trek series where a fake version of the actual game was featured once in a while.

There’s also four-handed chess which I’ve played a few times in college in my first year because one of my friends was a rabid fan of all manner of games and had groups of us up all night indulging his passion.  Whatever we played he always won.  Four-handed chess is essentially all against all, but you can form temporary alliances. When one player’s king is placed in checkmate, that player’s pieces are frozen, but they can be freed by another player capturing or moving one of the pieces creating the checkmate.

Xiangqi ( 象棋), known as “Chinese chess” in the West, is very popular in parts of China and the Chinese diaspora.  When I lived in Hong Kong I constantly passed games in the street surrounded by crowds of men constantly and loudly voicing their opinions of moves to each other and to the players. The game represents a battle between two armies, with the object of capturing the enemy’s general (king). Distinctive features of xiangqi include the cannon (pao), which must jump to capture; a rule prohibiting the generals from facing each other directly; areas on the board called the river and palace, which restrict the movement of some pieces (but enhance that of others); and placement of the pieces on the intersections of the board lines, rather than within the squares.

Chess pie is a pretty obvious choice for my recipe du jour even though there’s nothing to connect the game to the recipe other than the name. No one has a clear idea as to why the pie is called “chess” pie although there are plenty of ridiculous speculations. Southern gentry used to eat it before (or after) playing chess on their plantations, for example. The basic chess pie is very simple to make and is too sweet for my tastes. Common varieties include lemon chess pie and chocolate chess pie.  Here’s the basics:

Chess Pie

Ingredients

½ cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp cornmeal
¼ cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
9” unbaked pie shell

Instructions

Preheat your oven to 425˚F/220˚C).

In a large bowl (or stand mixer), cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Mix in the eggs, then beat in the cornmeal, evaporated milk and vinegar until smooth.

Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Then reduce the heat to 300˚F/150˚C) and bake for another 40 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack.

Serve slices cold with whipped cream.

May 052017
 

On this date in 1809, Mary Dixon Kies (1752 – 1837) was granted a patent for a new technique of weaving straw with silk and thread to make hats, signed by President James Madison. Most historians say that she was the first American woman to receive a patent, however others state that Hannah Slater was the first to file for a patent as early as 1793. Slater supposedly invented a method of producing cotton sewing thread. Disentangling the puzzle is impossible at this point because the US Patent Office was consumed by fire in 1836 destroying all the relevant documents.

Mary’s father, John Dixon, was a farmer born in 1679 in Ireland. Her mother, Janet Kennedy, was John Dixon’s third wife. Mary Dixon was born in Killingly, Connecticut on March 21, 1752. She married Isaac Pike I, and in 1770 they had a son, Isaac Pike II. After his death she married John Kies (1750–1813) who died on August 18, 1813 at age 63. She then lived with her second son, Daniel Kies, in Brooklyn, New York, until her death at age 85 in 1837.

Because of the Napoleonic Wars resulting in the constant threats on US merchant ships, the United States placed an embargo in 1807 on all trade with France and Great Britain, creating a shortage of all kinds of goods imported from Europe including millinery. The straw-weaving industry filled the gap. There were over $500,000 ($9 million in today’s money) worth of straw bonnets produced in Massachusetts alone in 1810.

Mary Kies was not the first woman in the US to innovate in hat-making. In 1798, New Englander Betsy Metcalf invented a method of braiding straw. Her method became very popular, and she employed many women and girls to make her hats. The method created a new industry for girls and women because the straw bonnets could be made at home from local resources, meaning that the women and girls could do work for themselves. Betsy Metcalf can thus be credited with starting the US straw-hat industry. Under the Patent Act of 1790 she could have sought a patent, but like most women at the time, who could not legally hold property, she chose not to. Mary Kies, did apply for a patent, however it’s not clear that she profited from it. Her idea differed from Metcalf’s in that she used thread in the weaving process. First Lady, Dolly Madison, was so pleased by Kies’ innovation that she sent a personal letter applauding her.

It is claimed that Kies’ technique proved valuable in making cost-effective work bonnets, but I can’t find any solid evidence to support this claim. Rather it appears that she did not profit much from her invention and she died in 1837 dependent on her son.

I’ve mentioned Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, American Cookery before because it was the first cookbook written and published in the United States. Since it was published in Connecticut in 1798 is a fitting source for us. The whole first half of the book is taken up with a discourse on various ingredients: flesh, fish fowl, vegetables, fruits, herbs, you name it. The recipes are terse but reasonably easy to follow. This one for foot pie caught my attention because it seems so bizarre. It reminds us that in the days before refrigeration people were a bit cavalier with storing things.

Minced Pies. A Foot Pie.

Scald neets feet, and clean well, (grass fed are best) put them into a large vessel of cold water, which change daily during a week, then boil the feet till tender, and take away the bones, when cold, chop fine, to every four pound minced meat, add one pound of beef suet, and four pound apple raw, and a little salt, chop all together very fine, add one quart of wine, two pound of stoned raisins, one ounce of cinnamon, one ounce mace, and sweeten to your taste; make use of paste No. 3–bake three quarters of an hour.

Weeks after, when you have occasion to use them, carefully raise the top crust, and with a round edg’d spoon, collect the meat into a bason, which warm with additional wine and spices to the taste of your circle, while the crust is also warm’d like a hoe cake, put carefully together and serve up, by this means you can have hot pies through the winter, and enrich’d singly to your company.

I’m not thrilled with the “weeks after” bit. Is she serious? And . . . you can do this throughout the winter? I need a bit more context. What I think she is suggesting is something akin to mincemeat which will keep for months. That is because of the sugar content.

Neat’s foot is an old fashioned term for cow’s foot, which is hard to find. You can sometimes find neatsfoot oil which is used to preserve and waterproof leather shoes, similar to mink oil which I used to use on my hiking boots. Cowheel pie used to be a popular and cheap dish in Lancashire but I have not seen nor heard of it in decades. Cow’s foot, like pig’s trotter is fatty with little in the way of meat on it. Still, if you find some stew them up in a soup.

Aug 042016
 

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Today is the birthday (1834) of John Venn, English mathematician and logician, primarily remembered for his use of diagrams, which we now call Venn diagrams, to help explain concepts in set theory. Venn was not exactly a giant in his field, but I’d settle for having something reasonably commonplace named after me. Venn diagrams have served me very well in my own work.

Venn was born in Hull, and educated at private schools in London before studying mathematics at Cambridge University, at Gonville and Caius College where he subsequently became a fellow and then head of the college.

Venn’s father was an Anglican clergyman and Venn followed suit in the late 1850s, as was normal for fellows at Cambridge at the time. In fact, after receiving his degree in 1857 he did parish work for a few years before devoting himself full time to mathematics. Even after he left the clergy in the 1880s he continued being involved in the church, although he found strict Anglicanism incompatible with logic and mathematics.

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Venn’s first major publication was The Logic of Chance (1866), a significant accounting of the laws of probability. He then turned to George Boole’s work in logic and produced Symbolic Logic in 1881. It was in this work that he introduced Venn diagrams which he had been using as a teaching device for several years:

I began at once somewhat more steady work on the subjects and books which I should have to lecture on. I now first hit upon the diagrammatical device of representing propositions by inclusive and exclusive circles. Of course the device was not new then, but it was so obviously representative of the way in which any one, who approached the subject from the mathematical side, would attempt to visualise propositions, that it was forced upon me almost at once.

As Venn notes, other mathematicians, notably Gottfried Leibniz and Leonhard Euler, had used similar diagrams earlier, but Venn popularized them as well as extending their application to a wide variety of fields outside of mathematics and logic, and making their application more rigorous than previous attempts.

Venn diagrams don’t actually serve a technical function in mathematics or logic, but they do make certain concepts easier to grasp by displaying them visually. Here’s a simple example showing the Greek, Russian, and Roman alphabets each contained within circles which are drawn to overlap. Symbols in common between two of the alphabets are shown at the intersections of their circles, and symbols common to all three are shown in the central intersection.

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Venn diagrams also have the possibility of excluding items from any of the circles, such as in the example below of a diagram concerning “people I know” and the use of social media. Harry uses neither Facebook nor Twitter so fits inside the rectangle representing people I know but outside the circles representing social media.

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Venn was elected to the Royal Society in 1883 and continued to publish other works, including The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic (1889) and volumes on the history of Cambridge and a list of its alumni, compiled with the aid of his son, John Archibald Venn.

Venn died on April 4, 1923, in Cambridge at the age of 88. He is memorialized by a stained glass window at his old college.

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When dealing with mathematical subjects before I’ve focused on mathematical objects. The Venn diagram is not a mathematical object per se, but it does lend itself to cooking ideas. This site gives an idea for a Venn diagram pie. http://www.quirkbooks.com/post/happy-pi-day-make-venn-pie-agram  It was created for Pi Day (3/14 in countries that use month/day format), so it is more about being a pie than being an accurate Venn diagram. But you can take the original and modify it.

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The site shows you how to cut two disposable pie pans to make the Venn diagram shape, and the crust conforms to the general idea of sets – no crust and full crust intersect to make a lattice crust. The recipe fails with the fillings. It just suggests using three different ones. It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with categories such as fruit and dairy, so that one side is fruit, no dairy, the other is dairy, no fruit, and the middle is fruit and dairy. I’ll leave it to you.

Oct 012015
 

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In the past 2 years I have written about big celebrations on this date. First there is World Vegetarian Day http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-vegetarian-day/. Then, here in China, it is National Day http://www.bookofdaystales.com/national-day-peoples-republic-china/ commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 – a major holiday which lasts a week. This year it’s perhaps time for something a little more light hearted. So let us celebrate the birthday (1890) of Stanley Holloway, internationally renowned for his part as Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but very well known to several generations in Britain for his monologues and his parts in Ealing comedies.

Holloway was born in Manor Park, Essex (now in the London Borough of Newham), the younger child and only son of George Augustus Holloway (1860–1919), a lawyer’s clerk, and Florence May née Bell (1862–1913), a housekeeper and dressmaker. George left Florence in 1905 and was never seen or heard from again by his family.

During his early teenage years, Holloway attended the Worshipful School of Carpenters in nearby Stratford[13][14] and joined a local choir, which he later called his “big moment”. He left school at the age of 14 and worked as a junior clerk in a boot polish factory. He began performing part-time as Master Stanley Holloway – The Wonderful Boy Soprano from 1904, singing sentimental songs such as “The Lost Chord”. A year later, he became a clerk at Billingsgate Fish Market, where he remained for two years before beginning training as an infantry soldier in the London Rifle Brigade in 1907.

Holloway’s stage career began in 1910, when he traveled to Walton-on-the-Naze to audition for The White Coons Show, a concert party variety show arranged and produced by Will S. Pepper, father of Harry S. Pepper, with whom Holloway later starred in The Co-Optimists.This seaside show lasted six weeks.

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In 1913 Holloway was recruited by the comedian Leslie Henson to feature as a support in Henson’s concert party called Nicely, Thanks. In later life, Holloway often spoke of his admiration for Henson, citing him as a great influence on his career. The two became firm friends and often consulted each other before taking jobs. In his 1967 autobiography, Holloway dedicated a whole chapter to Henson, whom he described as “the greatest friend, inspiration and mentor a performer could have had”. Later in 1913, Holloway decided to train as an operatic baritone, and so he went to Italy to take singing lessons from Ferdinando Guarino in Milan. However, a yearning to start a career in light entertainment and a contract to re-appear in Bert Graham and Will Bentley’s concert party at the West Cliff Theatre caused him to return home after six months.

In the early months of 1914, Holloway made his first visit to the U.S. and then went to Buenos Aires and Valparaíso with the concert party The Grotesques. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, he decided to return to the UK, but his departure was delayed for six weeks due to his contract with the troupe. At the age of 25, Holloway enlisted in the Connaught Rangers. In December 1915 he was commissioned as a subaltern because of his previous training as a private in the London Rifle Brigade. He was stationed in Cork and initially fought against Sinn Féin during the Easter Rising of 1916. Later that year, he was sent to France, where he fought in the trenches alongside Michael O’Leary, who later won the Victoria Cross for gallantry. Holloway and O’Leary stayed in touch after the war, becoming close friends.

On being demobilized on 1 May 1919, Holloway returned to London and resumed his singing and acting career, finding success in two West End musicals at the Winter Garden Theatre. Later that month, he created the role of Captain Wentworth in Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Kissing Time, followed in 1920 by the role of René in A Night Out. Holloway made his film debut in a 1921 silent comedy called The Rotters.

From June 1921, Holloway had considerable success in The Co-Optimists, a concert party formed with performers whom he had met during the war in France, which The Times called “an all-star ‘pierrot’ entertainment in the West-end.” It opened at the small Royalty Theatre and soon transferred to the much larger Palace Theatre, where the initial version of the show ran for over a year, giving more than 500 performances. The entertainment was completely rewritten at regular intervals to keep it fresh, and the final edition, beginning in November 1926, was the 13th version. The Co-Optimists closed in 1927 at His Majesty’s Theatre after 1,568 performances over eight years. In 1929, a feature film version was made, with Holloway rejoining his former co-stars.

In 1923 Holloway established himself as a BBC Radio performer. The early BBC broadcasts brought variety and classical artists together. He developed his solo act throughout the 1920s while continuing his involvement with the musical theatre and The Co-Optimists. In 1924 he made his first gramophone discs, recording for HMV two songs from The Co-Optimists: “London Town” and “Memory Street”. After The Co-Optimists disbanded in 1927, Holloway played at the London Hippodrome in Vincent Youmans’s musical comedy Hit the Deck as Bill Smith, a performance judged by The Times to be “invested with many shrewd touches of humanity.” In The Manchester Guardian, Ivor Brown praised him for a singing style “which coaxes the ear rather than clubbing the head.”

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Holloway began regularly performing monologues, both on stage and on record, in 1928, with his own creation, Sam Small, in “Sam, Sam, Pick oop thy Musket.” Over the following years, he recorded more than 20 monologues based on the character, most of which he wrote himself. He created Sam Small after Henson had returned from a tour of northern England and told him a story about an insubordinate old soldier from the Battle of Waterloo. Holloway developed the character, naming him after a Cockney friend of Henson called Annie Small; the name Sam was chosen at random. Holloway adopted a northern accent for the character. The Times commented, “For absolute delight … there is nothing to compare with Mr. Stanley Holloway’s monologue, concerning a military contretemps on the eve of Waterloo … perfect, even to the curled moustache and the Lancashire accent of the stubborn Guardsman hero.”

When The Co-Optimists re-formed in 1930, he rejoined that company, now at the Savoy Theatre, and at the same venue appeared in Savoy Follies in 1931, where he introduced to London audiences the monologue “The Lion and Albert.” The monologue was written by Marriott Edgar, who based the story on a news item about a boy who was eaten by a lion in the zoo. In the monologue, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom react in a measured way when their son Albert is swallowed. Neither Edgar nor Holloway was convinced that the piece would succeed, but needing material for an appearance at a Northern Rugby League dinner Holloway decided to perform it. It was well received, and Holloway introduced it into his stage act. Subsequently, Edgar wrote 16 monologues for him. In its obituary of Holloway, The Times wrote that Sam and Albert “became part of English folklore during the 1930s, and they remained so during the Second World War.” These monologues employed the Holloway style that has been called “the understated look-on-the-bright-side world of the cockney working class. … Holloway’s characters are mischievous, like Albert, or obstinate, and hilariously clueless. He often told his stories in costume; sporting outrageous attire and bushy moustaches.” Here’s Sam and Albert in original recordings:

Beginning in 1934, Holloway appeared in a series of British films, three of which featured his creation Sam Small. He started his association with the Ealing Studios in 1934, appearing in the fifth Gracie Fields picture Sing As We Go. In 1941 Holloway took a character part in Gabriel Pascal’s film of Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, in which he played a policeman. He had leading parts in later films, including The Way Ahead (1944), This Happy Breed (1944) and The Way to the Stars (1945). After the war, he played Albert Godby in Brief Encounter and had a cameo role as the First Gravedigger in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet. In 1951 Holloway played the same role on the stage to the Hamlet of Alec Guinness.

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Holloway also starred in a series of films for Ealing Studios, beginning with Champagne Charlie in 1944 alongside Tommy Trinder. After that he made Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and Another Shore (1948). He next appeared in three of the most famous Ealing Comedies, Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). His final film with the studio was Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953).

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In 1954 Holloway joined the Old Vic theatre company to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Robert Helpmann as Oberon and Moira Shearer as Titania. After playing at the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company took the production to New York, where it played at the Metropolitan Opera House and then on tour of the U.S. and Canada. The production was harshly reviewed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but Holloway made a strong impression. Holloway said of the experience: “Out of the blue I was asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company to tour America with them, playing Bottom. … From that American tour came the part of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady and from then on, well, just let’s say I was able to pick and choose my parts and that was very pleasant at my age.”

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In 1956 Holloway created the role of Alfred P. Doolittle in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. The librettist, Alan Jay Lerner, remembered in his memoirs that Holloway was his first choice for the role, even before it was written. Lerner’s only concern was whether, after so long away from the musical stage, Holloway still had his resonant singing voice. Holloway reassured him over a lunch at Claridge’s: Lerner recalled, “He put down his knife and fork, threw back his head and unleashed a strong baritone note that resounded through the dining room, drowned out the string quartet and sent a few dozen people off to the osteopath to have their necks untwisted.” Holloway had a long association with the show, appearing in the original 1956 Broadway production at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, the 1958 London version at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the film version in 1964. In The Manchester Guardian, Alistair Cooke wrote, “Stanley Holloway distils into the body of Doolittle the taste and smell of every pub in England.”

Holloway continued to perform until well into his eighties, touring Asia and Australia in 1977 together with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and David Langton in The Pleasure of His Company, by Samuel A. Taylor and Cornelia Otis Skinner. He made his last appearance performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1980, aged 89.

Holloway died of a stroke at the Nightingale Nursing Home in Littlehampton, West Sussex, on 30 January 1982, aged 91. He is buried, along with his wife Violet, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in East Preston, West Sussex.

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Although Holloway is often considered the consummate stage Cockney, his east London bona fides are a bit frail. His roots are more along the lines of lower-middle class Essex-cum-East London, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt given that he played Cockneys well – certainly miles and miles ahead of Dick van Dyke’s supposedly Cockney sweep in Mary Poppins, which came out the same year as My Fair Lady.

Quintessential east London food is pie and mash served in pie and eel shops. During the Victorian era, industrial air pollution tended to be worse in the east and south east of London due to the prevailing westerly wind, with the result that the East End was settled more by the working classes, while the western part of the city was home to higher social classes. The working class were poor and favored dishes that were cheap, in plentiful supply, and easy to prepare.

The savory pie had long been a traditional food, and its small hand-sized form also made it a transportable meal, protected from dirt by its cold pastry crust. European eels baked in a pastry crust became a common worker’s meal since eels were one of the few forms of fish that could survive in the heavily polluted River Thames and London’s other rivers at that time. Supply was plentiful through to the late 19th century, particularly from the Dutch fishing boats landing catches at Billingsgate Fish Market. Adding cheap mashed potatoes made it a plate-based, sit-down meal, and a sauce made of the water used to cook the eels, colored and flavored by parsley, made the whole dish something special.

Later, and for a higher price, mutton or inexpensive minced meat could be alternatively ordered as the pie filling. After World War II, as the eel supply dwindled and beef often became cheap and in far greater supply from overseas sources, minced beef became the more popular pie filling.

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Pie and eel shops now mostly sell pie and mash — a minced beef and cold water pastry pie served with mashed potato. As a teen I had a number of friends from east London whose families had been relocated from bombed out sections after World War II. It was common for them to go back to London on weekends, and we often ended up at a pie and eel shop for lunch. In those days they had plain tiled walls and scrubbed deal tables to eat at.

Interior of L Manze's Walthamstow

There should be two types of pastry used for the pies, the bottom or base should be suet pastry and the top, short pastry, although this varies. It is common for the mashed potato to be spread around one side of the plate and for a type of parsley sauce to be poured on top of it all. This sauce is commonly called “eel liquor sauce” or simply “liquor,” traditionally made using the water kept from the preparation of the stewed eels. As you will see from this video, cooks will not part with their recipes, which differ from shop to shop. The taste of the liquor is one of the prime factors in choosing which shop you prefer. These recipes are generations old and I would not know where to start in recreating one, although I’d start with eel broth and malt vinegar blended with lots of chopped fresh parsley.

Dec 262013
 

The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen

Today is the feast of St Stephen, first Christian martyr. Stephen, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.The only primary source for information about Stephen is the Biblical book Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected for a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6:

1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Thus was inaugurated the office of deacon, which remains to this day in many Christian denominations a position of service to the community, especially to the poor and needy. Besides his official duties, however, Stephen also preached to the people and raised the ire of some:

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.

Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is reported in Acts 7; the longest speech recorded in the Greek Bible.  It’s fiery stuff not calculated to win any friends on the Sanhedrin. For example,

51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”

The consequences for Stephen were dire:

54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

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Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek, Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr’s palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

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St Stephen’s day is a widespread holiday in Europe associated with a host of customs.  In Ireland, the day is one of nine official public holidays. In Irish, it is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Ireland, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. Boys and young men dress up in old clothes or disguises  and travel from door to door begging for money “for the wren.” At one time they carried a wren on a pole which they had killed that morning, but nowadays they carry a fake wren.  Each group had a song they sang as they walked the streets. This one was popularized by the group Steeleye Span:

The custom is not very common these days, although it is being revived in some communities.  I had the good fortune to see the traditional wren boys in Letterkenny, Co, Donegal in 1971 late at night as they paraded through the town with lighted fire brands. Fun, but just a tad scary too. Fifty or so young farm boys who have been drinking all day, disguised and carrying live fire – hmmmm. The people in the town were absolutely jubilant as they passed through.

In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the day following Christmas is a holiday known as Boxing Day, so called because of the custom in the 19th century of service people going to their employers to receive Christmas “boxes,” that is, bonuses for good service.  Household servants had to work on Christmas Day but had Boxing Day off.  There are numerous customs associated with the day, too numerous to mention.  My favorite is the tradition of linked sword dancing which is very common in the NE of England.  Here is a sample from Grenoside in Yorkshire:

Boxing Day is typically a day for using up leftovers from Christmas dinner in creative ways.  St Stephen’s Day pie is a great recipe for this.  It’s a variant of the classic shepherd’s pie or cottage pie; ground meat and veggies in gravy topped with mashed potato and then baked.  This recipe should also teach you that you can make a pie out of just about anything topped with potatoes.  I like to make a mix of fish and shellfish in a white sauce.  The world is your oyster.

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St Stephen’s Day Pie

Ingredients:

2 lbs cold turkey meat
1 lb cold ham or bacon
4 ozs butter plus extra for the topping
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ½ cups poultry stock
1 ¼ cups turkey gravy
8 ozs small button mushrooms
4 tsps chopped parsley
4 tsps chopped chives
2 tsps marjoram, sage, or thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
? cup heavy cream
2 pounds mashed potato

Instructions:

Cut the turkey and ham/bacon into 1″ pieces. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet or saucepan, add the chopped onions, cover and sauté for about 10 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.

Wash and slice the mushrooms.

When the onions are soft, stir in the garlic and remove to a plate. Increase the heat and cook the sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add to the onion and garlic.

Toss the cold turkey and ham /bacon in the hot pan, using a little extra butter if necessary. Add the mushrooms and onions. De-glaze the pan with the turkey stock. Add the cream and chopped herbs and bring to a boil. Add the gravy, meat, mushrooms and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Pour the filling into a deep pie dish and top with potatoes. Dot the top with butter to ensure browning. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the potato is golden and the pie is bubbling.

Serves 6-8