Feb 212018
 

Today is the birthday (1907) of Wystan Hugh Auden an English poet noted for a large body of poetry that  engaged with politics, morals, love, and religion, and varied greatly in tone, form and content. Auden was born in York, grew up in and near Birmingham in a professional middle-class family, attended English boarding schools, and studied at Christ Church college, Oxford, beginning in 1925. Auden was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925 by his fellow student A. S. T. Fisher (they had known one another in boarding school). For the next few years Auden sent poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. From his Oxford years onward, Auden’s friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way. In more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder.

Auden started at Oxford with a scholarship in biology, but had switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford include Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. These four were commonly, though misleadingly, identified in the 1930s as the “Auden Group” for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. By the time I became interested in poetry as a teen in the 1960s they were known as the “Poets of the 30s” even though they were all, with the exception of MacNeice, still quite active. Auden left Oxford in 1928 having barely scraped through finals, with a degree in English.

After a few months in Berlin in 1928–29 he spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools, then travelled to Iceland (where he believed he had ancestry) and China in order to write books about his journeys. He came to wide public attention at the age of 23, in 1930, with his first book, Poems, followed in 1932 by The Orators. Three plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood in 1935–38 built his reputation as a left-wing political writer. He moved to the United States partly to escape this reputation.

Auden taught from 1941 to 1945 in U.S. universities, followed by occasional visiting professorships in the 1950s. From 1947 to 1957 he spent winters in New York and summers in Ischia. From 1958 until the end of his life he spent his summers in Kirchstetten in Lower Austria, where he died, and in his last 2 years he spent the winter months in a cottage on the grounds of Christ Church. I was an undergraduate at the time, and saw him wandering up St Aldates towards Carfax once or twice. My college was opposite Christ Church. He looked lost and bewildered – not the man I knew from his poetry.

Auden’s work in the 1940s, including the long poems “For the Time Being” and “The Sea and the Mirror,” focused on religious themes. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety,” the title of which became a popular phrase describing the modern era. In 1956 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and served until 1961. His lectures were popular with students and dons, and served as the basis of his 1962 prose collection The Dyer’s Hand.

From around 1927 to 1939 Auden and Isherwood maintained a lasting but intermittent sexual friendship while both had briefer but more intense relations with other men. In 1939 Auden fell in love with Chester Kallman and regarded their relationship as a marriage. The relationship ended in 1941 when Kallman refused to accept the fidelity that Auden demanded, but the two maintained their friendship, and from 1947 until Auden’s death they lived in the same house or apartment in a non-sexual relationship, often collaborating on opera libretti such as The Rake’s Progress, for music by Igor Stravinsky.

Many of Auden’s poems during the 1930s and after were inspired by unconsummated love, and in the 1950s he summarized his emotional life in a famous couplet: “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me” (“The More Loving One”). He had a gift for friendship and, starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage. In a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage “the only subject.” Throughout his life, Auden performed charitable acts, sometimes in public (as in his 1935 marriage of convenience to Erika Mann that provided her with a British passport to escape the Nazis), but, especially in later years, more often in private. He was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed.

Auden was a prolific writer of prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays, and other forms of performance. Throughout his career he was both controversial and influential. Critical views on his work ranged from sharply dismissive, treating him as a lesser follower of the likes of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, to strongly affirmative, as in Joseph Brodsky’s claim that he had “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.” After his death, his poems became known to a much wider public than during his lifetime through films, broadcasts and popular media. This was once popular:

Auden died in Vienna in 1973, a few hours after giving a reading of his poems at the Austrian Society for Literature. He died at the Altenburgerhof Hotel where he was staying overnight before his intended return to Oxford the next day. He was buried in Kirchstetten.

Auden was a great admirer of M.F.K. Fisher — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/m-f-k-fisher/ In his introduction to Fisher’s The Art of Eating (1954) he writes: “I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” He cites several examples, including this passage:

I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits.

The passage likely inspired Auden’s poem “Tonight at 7:30.”

My problem in finding a recipe is that Auden was not so much inspired by the food at dinner parties but by the company, and his admiration of Fisher concerns how she writes about people and places and things, not about recipes per se. Never mind. She gives a decent recipe for tapenade. I don’t know what she spells it tapénade: misplaced pretentiousness maybe. Tapenade is a Provençal dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil. Its name comes from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas. It is a popular dish in the south of France, where it is generally eaten as an hors d’œuvre spread on bread, but sometimes it is used to stuff poultry for a main course. Tapenade’s base ingredients are capers and olives. The olives (most commonly black olive) and capers are finely chopped, crushed or blended. Olive oil is then added until the mixture becomes a paste. Tapenade is often flavored differently in varying regions with other ingredients such as garlic, herbs, anchovies, lemon juice or brandy. This is Fisher’s recipe slightly edited.

M.F.K. Fisher’s Tapénade

Ingredients

1 cup pitted, chopped black olives
½ cup anchovy fillets, chopped
½ cup canned tuna
1 tsp dry mustard
pepper
½ cup capers
1 cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1 ½ fl oz brandy

Instructions

Pound the first six ingredients in a mortar to form a paste (I use a food blender on pulse). Add the olive oil slowly like making mayonnaise. Mix in the lemon juice slowly, and then the brandy. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Feb 052016
 

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Today is the birthday (1804) of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a Finnish-Swedish poet, and the national poet of Finland. He wrote in the Swedish language. His birthday is commemorated in Finland as Runeberg Day, and is a true foodie anniversary because the centerpiece of the celebration is the locally famous Runeberg Torte (Finnish: Runebergintorttu; Swedish: Runebergstårta).

Runeberg studied first in the cities of Vaasa and Oulu, later on at the Imperial Academy of Turku, where he befriended Johan Vilhelm Snellman and Zacharias Topelius. His studies concentrated mainly on the classical languages of Latin and Greek. From 1837 onwards he lived in Porvoo, where he served as professor of Latin literature in the Gymnasium of Porvoo. He was married to his second cousin Fredrika Runeberg, née Tengström, with whom he had eight children and who wrote poems and novels, too. His eldest son was the sculptor Walter Runeberg.

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Many of his poems deal with life in rural Finland. The best known of these is Bonden Paavo, (Farmer Paavo, Saarijärven Paavo in Finnish), about a smallholding peasant farmer in the poor parish of Saarijärvi and his determination, “sisu” (guts) and unwavering faith in providence in the face of a harsh climate and years of bad harvests. Three times, a frosty night destroys his crops. Every time, he mixes double the amount of bark into his bark bread to stave off starvation and works ever harder to dry off marsh into dryer land that would not be as exposed to the night frost. After the fourth year, Paavo finally gets a rich crop. As his wife exults, thanks God and tells Paavo to enjoy bread made entirely out of grain, Paavo instructs his wife to mix bark into the grain once more, because their neighbor’s crop has been lost in a frost and he gives half of his crop to the needy neighbor.

Runeberg’s most famous work is Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat in Finnish) written between 1848 and 1860. It is considered the greatest Finnish epic poem outside the native Kalevala tradition and contains tales of the Finnish War of 1808–09 with Russia. In the war, Sweden lost Finland, which became a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire. The poem, which is composed episodically, emphasizes the common humanity of all sides in the conflict, while principally lauding the heroism of the Finns. The first poem “Vårt land” (Our Land, Maamme in Finnish) became the Finnish National Anthem.

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Runeberg torte is a Finnish pastry flavored with almonds and arrack* (or rum). Raspberry jam inside a sugar ring is commonly placed on top of the tart. Runeberg, according to legend, ate the torte with punsch* at every breakfast. Runeberg tortes are typically eaten only in Finland and are generally available in stores from the beginning of January to Runeberg’s birthday on February 5. Popular legend says that Runeberg’s wife, Fredrika Runeberg, created the torte. Her recipe book from the 1850s has the torte’s recipe, which is believed to be a variation of an earlier recipe by confectioner Lars Astenius from Porvoo. The moulds should be deeper than the usual Western cupcake or muffin pan.

Runeberg torte

Ingredients

200 g butter
120 g sugar
2 eggs
130 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
80 g crushed sweet plain biscuits (cookies)
80 g ground almonds
12  mL single cream

To moisten

25 mL water
120 g sugar
2 -3 tbsp arrack liqueur (or 2 -3 tbsp rum)

Topping

raspberry jam (or raspberry marmalade)

Icing

120 g icing sugar
2 tsp lemon juice

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 200° C.

Mix the almonds and biscuit crumbs.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer. Add one egg at a time to the butter and sugar, and beat the mixture well after each egg. Combine the flour and baking powder and stir into the mixture. Add the, bread crumbs and almonds, then the cardamom, and finally the cream. Fold everything together gently.

Grease 24 deep muffin moulds and divide the mix between them (with room left for the cakes to rise). Press a hollow in the top of top of each cake with a finger tip. Fill each hollow with raspberry jam. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes.

Boil the water and dissolve the sugar in it. Turn off the heat and add the arrack. Moisten the baked muffins with the liquid. While the muffins are still hot, add another half a teaspoonful of jam to the middle. Let the muffins cool.

Combine the icing sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Use a piping tube to pipe the icing in a circle around the jam.

*Note: [on arrack and punsch]

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Arrack, also spelt arak in Indonesian, is a distilled alcoholic drink typically produced in South Asia and Southeast Asia, made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit, depending upon the country of origin. The clear distillate may be blended, aged in wooden barrels, or repeatedly distilled and filtered depending upon the taste and color objectives of the manufacturer. Arrack is not to be confused with arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage traditionally drunk in Eastern Mediterranean and North African countries.

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Punsch is a traditional liqueur in Sweden and Finland (known as punssi in Finnish), produced from arrack, other spirits (often brandy or rum), sugar and water. Arrack, first imported to Sweden from Java in 1733, is the base ingredient of punsch. Punsch usually has 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 30% sugar.

Originally, Swedish/Finnish punsch was a variant of punch, which became a popular drink all over Europe in the 18th century, having been introduced to Britain from India in the late 17th century. The word punch/punsch is a loanword from Sanskrit पञ्च (pañc), meaning “five”, as punch was originally made with five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices. The English spelling of the word was in Sweden and Germany adapted to local spelling rules, thus becoming punsch. In Sweden, regular punch is also served, but in order to differentiate it from the liqueur known as punsch, it is known as punschbål (punch bowl) or simply bål (bowl).

Dec 102015
 

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Today is the birthday (1830) of poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent all of her life there. Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in seclusion. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.

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While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme (near rhyme) as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 — when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems — that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Despite some unfavorable reception and skepticism over the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding her literary prowess, her work is more highly regarded nowadays.

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When my son was 7 years old his teacher took his class on a field trip to Amherst, preceded by a lengthy series of talks about Dickinson and her poetry. He was captivated and learnt many of her poems by heart. Whilst in Amherst he visited famous sites and bought her complete works (which he pored over for months). I’ll have to find out if the love affair persists to this day. I, however, am less enthused. On the one hand I can see her place in the poetic world as transitional from classic Romanticism to modernism, and admire her for that. But, on the other, while her playfulness with rhyme, spelling, capitalization, and such, break the old rules, I don’t find it particularly interesting. Nor do her themes appeal much. I’m not enamored of Yankee culture in general, and don’t resonate in particular with the musings of a conscious social isolate. I can handle only so much first person poetry that seems largely devoid of human contact except when it comes to death. Its quirkiness seems almost entirely New England in spirit. I do readily admit that this is a matter of personal choice. You will at least, I hope, give me credit for celebrating her even though I care little for her work.

I’ll give you this sample to show I don’t dislike everything she wrote:

I MEANT to have but modest needs,    
Such as content, and heaven;    
Within my income these could lie,    
And life and I keep even.    
 
But since the last included both,            
It would suffice my prayer    
But just for one to stipulate,    
And grace would grant the pair.    
 
And so, upon this wise I prayed,—    
Great Spirit, give to me            
A heaven not so large as yours,    
But large enough for me.  

A smile suffused Jehovah’s face;    
The cherubim withdrew;    
Grave saints stole out to look at me,            
And showed their dimples, too.    
 
I left the place with all my might,—    
My prayer away I threw;    
The quiet ages picked it up,    
And Judgment twinkled, too,            
 
That one so honest be extant    
As take the tale for true    
That “Whatsoever you shall ask,    
Itself be given you.”    
 
But I, grown shrewder, scan the skies    
With a suspicious air,—    
As children, swindled for the first,    
All swindlers be, infer.

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I am also given to like the fact that she loved to tend the flower garden at home. This is a solitary pleasure which I enjoyed for many decades. Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, “was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet”. Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she assembled a collection of pressed plants in a 66-page leather-bound herbarium. It contained 424 pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. The Homestead garden was well-known and admired locally in its time. It has not survived, and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered “carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia”. In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets”. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but “they valued the posy more than the poetry”.

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It is also known that Dickinson loved to bake, although precious little of that endeavor survives either. This blog gives a good description of her recipe for coconut cake.

http://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/2011/12/emily-dickinsons-coconut-cake-2/

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The “recipe” is no more than a list of ingredients:

1 cup cocoanut

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoonful soda

1 teaspoonful cream of tartar

This makes one half the rule–

I should hope that any competent baker can figure out the method. If not, consult the link above. This is not something I am ever likely to want to bake.

Nov 282013
 

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Today is the birthday (1757) of William Blake, English poet, painter and printmaker. Blake was largely unrecognized during his lifetime, but is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.  He was considered mad by some of his contemporaries because of his unorthodox views on religion and his, at times, wild imagery, but now is held in high regard for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterized as part of the Romantic movement, or Pre-Romantic because of the era in which he worked. But many historians consider his work to be unclassifiable – it’s just Blake. William Rossetti characterized him as a “glorious luminary” and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors.” Blake was devoted to the Bible but actively hostile to all forms of organized Christianity, especially the Church of England. He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions, though in later life he rejected many of these beliefs .

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William Blake was born 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St.) in Soho in London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake’s father, James, was a hosier. He attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. The Blakes were dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.

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Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that he always preferred to drawing.  As a boy Blake was exposed to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His father and mother were able to buy prints for him to study  and copy, and enrolled him in drawing classes rather than send him to school. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During his boyhood Blake made explorations into poetry and his early work shows the influence of Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and the Psalms.

In 1772 (aged 14), Blake was apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the sum of £52.10, for a term of seven years. At the end of the term, aged 21, he became a professional engraver. Basire’s style of line-engraving was of a kind held at the time to be old-fashioned compared to the flashier stipple or mezzotint styles. It has been speculated that Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his ability to find work or recognition.

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In 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty.” Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalising and classification, is the great glory of the human mind.” Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Blake also disliked Reynolds’ apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds’ fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

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Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, records that in June 1780 Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison. The mob attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during the attack. The riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, became known as the Gordon Riots and provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, and the creation of the first police force. Although some historians believe Blake was forced to accompany the crowd, others have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act.

Blake met Catherine Boucher in 1782 when he was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, “Do you pity me?” When she responded affirmatively, he declared, “Then I love you.” Blake married Catherine  on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. Catherine was illiterate and so signed her wedding contract with an X. The original wedding certificate may be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she proved an invaluable aid, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.

Blake’s first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was printed around 1783. After his father’s death, Blake and former fellow apprentice James Parker opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson.  Johnson’s house was a meeting-place for leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.

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Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788; 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage. In Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love, and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.

In 1788, aged 31, Blake experimented with relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets, and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and the finished products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name). Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.

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In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham, in Sussex (now West Sussex), to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet.

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It was in this cottage that Blake began Milton a Poem (the title page is dated 1804, but Blake continued to work on it until 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient time,” which became the words for the anthem “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” has always been a favorite in England.  Here it is from the last night at the proms:

Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate “Jerusalem” (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in Soho. The exhibition was designed to market his own version, titled The Canterbury Pilgrims, along with other works. As a result, he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt called a “brilliant analysis” of Chaucer and is regularly anthologized as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings. The exhibition was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolors. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.

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In 1818 he was introduced by George Cumberland’s son to a young artist, John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. The group shared Blake’s rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. Aged 65, Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job, later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favorably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing” on a selection of the illustrations.

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The commission for Dante’s Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake’s death in 1827 cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of watercolors were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Blake’s illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.

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Because the project was never completed, Blake’s intent may be obscured. Some indicators bolster the impression that Blake’s illustrations in their totality would take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of “Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions,” Blake notes, “Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost.” Blake seems to dissent from Dante’s admiration of the poetic works of ancient Greece, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humor of the cantos).

At the same time, Blake shared Dante’s distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante’s work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake’s central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.

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On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the house, present at his death, said, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”

In celebration of Blake I must print, “The Tyger,” long a favorite of mine and clearly indicative of his spiritual vision:

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry

For a dish to commemorate Blake I have chosen a recipe from A Complete System of Cookery by William Verral, Master of the White-Hart in Lewes, Sussex, published the year after Blake was born, and originating not far from where he lived in Sussex.  Follow the link for the complete text of the book. Water Souchy is a fish soup probably adapted from a Flemish dish, Waterzooi. Its name derives from the Dutch term “zooien” meaning “to boil.” It is sometimes called Gentse Waterzooi which refers to the Belgian town of Ghent where it originated. The original dish is often made of fish, either freshwater or sea, (known as Viszooitje), though today chicken waterzooi (Kippenwaterzooi) is more common. All versions are based on an soup-base of egg yolk, cream and thickened vegetable broth. The stew itself contains fish or chicken, vegetables including carrots, onions, celeriac, leeks, potatoes and herbs such as parsley, thyme, bay-leaves and sage.

Verral’s dish is rather bland in comparison, but it contains parsley root, a much overlooked ingredient which I would like to highlight.  When you can find it, it comes with parsley attached, and makes a wonderful side dish for fish or poultry, sliced and poached, and served in a cream sauce made from the poaching water and chopped parsley tops (or simply buttered).

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Here is the original recipe. It is easy to follow.

Water Souchy

This is rather a Dutch dish, and for change no bad one. To make this in perfection you should have several sorts of small fish, flounders, gudgeons, eels, perch, and a pike or two; but it is often with perch only; they ought to be very fresh; take care all is very clean, for what they are boil’d in is the soup: cut little notches in all, and put them a little while in fresh spring water; (this is what is called crimping of fish in London); put them into a stewpan with as much water as you think will fill your dish, half a pint of white wine, a spoonful or two of vinegar, and as much salt as you would for broth. Put them over your fire in cold water, and take particular care you skim it well in boiling; provide some parsley roots cut in slices and boiled very tender, and a large quantity of leaves of parsley boiled nice and green. When your fish have boiled gently for a quarter of an hour take them from the fire and put in your roots, and when you serve it to table strew your leaves over it; take care not to break your fish and pour your liquor on softly and hot; some plates of bread and butter are generally served up with this, so be sure to have them ready.

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I followed the recipe, but with quite a few changes. I’ll be building a snowman in Hades before I will find parsley root in Buenos Aires. I used mushrooms just to add some variety.  I also think it is better to poach the root and parsley directly in the broth, rather than separately, as Verral suggests.  Otherwise the broth is likely to be weak. I used a ton of parsley.  I also used lime juice in place of vinegar because in most dishes I prefer citrus juices to vinegar (including vinaigrette).  I suppose I could have used Japanese rice wine vinegar, which I quite like. I served additional lime wedges on the side for extra flavor, along with the bread and butter. Verral’s instructions imply he used whole fish; I used fillets and so did not worry about all the pre-cleaning.  The Flemish dish originally used either saltwater or river fish; Verral’s list is mostly river fish.  I used halibut because river fish is popular only in the northern provinces of Argentina.  All in all it proved to be a flavorful dish, which I will try again.

Nov 132013
 

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Today is the birthday (1850) of Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer.  In popular tradition he is chiefly remembered for the characters Long John Silver, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  But in his lifetime his writing on a wide range of issues including world travel were immensely popular.  I first encountered Stevenson as an 8 yr old boy when my teacher read us “The World of Counterpane” (counterpane = bedspread) and explained that Stevenson was very sickly as a boy and had to spend long periods in bed.  So he invented a world of his own where his knees were hills and the flat places were plains where soldiers could march. I was deeply touched by this. I had no idea at the time who Stevenson was except this poor sick boy who could not go out to play. In celebration, therefore, I am going to focus on Stevenson’s childhood and children’s verses.

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Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh to Margaret Isabella Balfour and Thomas Stevenson, a leading lighthouse engineer. Lighthouse design was the family profession: Thomas’s own father (Robert’s grandfather) was the famous lighthouse designer Robert Stevenson, and Thomas’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Smith, and brothers Alan and David were also in the business. On Margaret’s side, the family were gentry, tracing their name back to an Alexander Balfour, who held the lands of Inchrye in Fife in the fifteenth century. Her father, Lewis Balfour, was a minister of the Church of Scotland at nearby Colinton, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his house. “Now I often wonder,” wrote Stevenson, “what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them.”

Lewis Balfour and his daughter both had weak chests, and often needed to stay in warmer climates for their health. Stevenson inherited a tendency to coughs and fevers, exacerbated when the family moved to a damp, chilly house at 1 Inverleith Terrace in 1851. The family moved again to the sunnier 17 Heriot Row when Stevenson was six years old, but the tendency to extreme sickness in winter remained with him until he was eleven. Illness would be a recurrent feature of his adult life and left him extraordinarily thin. Contemporary views were that he had tuberculosis (or consumption), but more recent views are that it was bronchiectasis, an obstructive lung disease.

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Stevenson’s parents were both devout and serious Presbyterians, but the household was not strict in its adherence to Calvinist principles. His nurse, Alison Cunningham (known as Cummy), was more fervently religious. Her Calvinism and folk beliefs were an early source of nightmares for Stevenson, and he showed a precocious concern for religion. But she also cared for him tenderly in illness, reading to him from Bunyan and the Bible as he lay sick in bed, and telling tales of the Covenanters.

An only child, strange-looking and eccentric, Stevenson found it hard to fit in when he was sent to a nearby school at age six, a problem repeated at age eleven when he went on to the Edinburgh Academy; but he mixed well in lively games with his cousins in summer holidays at Colinton. In any case, his frequent illnesses often kept him away from his first school, and he was taught for long stretches by private tutors. He was a late reader, first learning at age seven or eight, but even before this he dictated stories to his mother and nurse. He compulsively wrote stories throughout his childhood. His father was proud of this interest; he had also written stories in his spare time until his own father found them and told him to “give up such nonsense and mind your business.” (“business” here means “studies”)

In September 1857, Stevenson went to Mr Henderson’s school in India Street, Edinburgh, but because of poor health stayed only a few weeks and did not return until October 1859. During his many absences he was taught by private tutors. In October 1861 he went to Edinburgh Academy, an independent school for boys, and stayed there sporadically for about fifteen months. In the autumn of 1863 he spent one term at an English boarding school at Spring Grove in Isleworth in Middlesex (now an urban area of West London). In October 1864, following an improvement to his health, he was sent to Robert Thomson’s private school in Frederick Street, Edinburgh, where he remained until he went to university.

I thought I would select a few favorites from A Child’s Garden of Verses, to give more personal insight into Stevenson’s childhood.  The collection was first published in 1885 under the title Penny Whistles.

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First, the one that started it all for me:

Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

This is matched by a less well known and sadder one:

Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Then as testament to the fact that even when he was well enough to play, he was an only child:

Unseen Playmate

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘T is he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘T is he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘T is he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘T is he will take care of your playthings himself!

And finally one that I love because it evokes an era when the speed of a train was pure magic in comparison with horse-drawn vehicles:

From a Railway Carriage

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

What better guide to cooking for Victorian invalids than my old standby Isabella Beeton?  Here’s some lovely tidbits from the chapter Invalid Cookery in Household Management:

A FEW RULES TO BE OBSERVED IN COOKING FOR INVALIDS.

1843. Always have something in readiness; a little beef tea, nicely made and nicely skimmed, a few spoonfuls of jelly, &c. &c., that it may be administered as soon almost as the invalid wishes for it. If obliged to wait a long time, the patient loses the desire to eat, and often turns against the food when brought to him or her.

1844. In sending dishes or preparations up to invalids, let everything look as tempting as possible. Have a clean tray-cloth laid smoothly over the tray; let the spoons, tumblers, cups and saucers, &c., be very clean and bright. Gruel served in a tumbler is more appetizing than when served in a basin or cup and saucer.

1847. Never leave food about a sick room; if the patient cannot eat it when brought to him, take it away, and bring it to him in an hour or two’s time. Miss Nightingale says, “To leave the patient’s untasted food by his side, from meal to meal, in hopes that he will eat it in the interval, is simply to prevent him from taking any food at all.” She says, “I have known patients literally incapacitated from taking one article of food after another by this piece of ignorance. Let the food come at the right time, and be taken away, eaten or uneaten, at the right time, but never let a patient have ‘something always standing’ by him, if you don’t wish to disgust him of everything.”

1849. Roast mutton, chickens, rabbits, calves’ feet or head, game, fish (simply dressed), and simple puddings, are all light food, and easily digested. Of course, these things are only partaken of, supposing the patient is recovering. [Yes, indeed, “light” food! Nothing quite so dainty as roast  mutton.]

1850. A mutton chop, nicely cut, trimmed, and broiled to a turn, is a dish to be recommended for invalids; but it must not be served with all the fat at the end, nor must it be too thickly cut. Let it be cooked over a fire free from smoke, and sent up with the gravy in it, between two very hot plates. Nothing is more disagreeable to an invalid than smoked food.

1852. In boiling eggs for invalids, let the white be just set; if boiled hard, they will be likely to disagree with the patient.

1853. In Miss Nightingale’s admirable “Notes on Nursing,” a book that no mother or nurse should be without, she says,—”You cannot be too careful as to quality in sick diet. A nurse should never put before a patient milk that is sour, meat or soup that is turned, an egg that is bad, or vegetables underdone.” Yet often, she says, she has seen these things brought in to the sick, in a state perfectly perceptible to every nose or eye except the nurse’s. It is here that the clever nurse appears,—she will not bring in the peccant article; but, not to disappoint the patient, she will whip up something else in a few minutes. Remember, that sick cookery should half do the work of your poor patient’s weak digestion.

RECIPES

BAKED OR STEWED CALF’S FOOT.

1861. INGREDIENTS.—1 calf’s foot, 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of water, 1 blade of mace, the rind of 1/4 lemon, pepper and salt to taste.

Mode.—Well clean the foot, and either stew or bake it in the milk-and-water with the other ingredients from 3 to 4 hours. To enhance the flavour, an onion and a small quantity of celery may be added, if approved; 1/2 a teacupful of cream, stirred in just before serving, is also a great improvement to this dish.

Time.—3 to 4 hours. Average cost, in full season, 9d. each.

Sufficient for 1 person. Seasonable from March to October.

NUTRITIOUS COFFEE.

1864. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 oz. of ground coffee, 1 pint of milk.

Mode.—Let the coffee be freshly ground; put it into a saucepan, with the milk, which should be made nearly boiling before the coffee is put in, and boil both together for 3 minutes; clear it by pouring some of it into a cup, and then back again, and leave it on the hob for a few minutes to settle thoroughly. This coffee may be made still more nutritious by the addition of an egg well beaten, and put into the coffee-cup.

Time.—5 minutes to boil, 5 minutes to settle.

Sufficient to make 1 large breakfast-cupful of coffee.

Our great nurse Miss Nightingale remarks, that “a great deal too much against tea is said by wise people, and a great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people. When you see the natural and almost universal craving in English sick for their ‘tea,’ you cannot but feel that Nature knows what she is about. But a little tea or coffee restores them quite as much as a great deal; and a great deal of tea, and especially of coffee, impairs the little power of digestion they have. Yet a nurse, because she sees how one or two cups of tea or coffee restore her patient, thinks that three or four cups will do twice as much. This is not the case at all; it is, however, certain that there is nothing yet discovered which is a substitute to the English patient for his cup of tea; he can take it when he can take nothing else, and he often can’t take anything else, if he has it not. Coffee is a better restorative than tea, but a greater impairer of the digestion. In making coffee, it is absolutely necessary to buy it in the berry, and grind it at home; otherwise, you may reckon upon its containing a certain amount of chicory, at least. This is not a question of the taste, or of the wholesomeness of chicory; it is, that chicory has nothing at all of the properties for which you give coffee, and, therefore, you may as well not give it.”

EEL BROTH.

1866. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of eels, a small bunch of sweet herbs, including parsley; 1/2 onion, 10 peppercorns, 3 pints of water, 2 cloves, salt and pepper to taste.

Mode.—After having cleaned and skinned the eel, cut it into small pieces, and put it into a stewpan, with the other ingredients; simmer gently until the liquid is reduced nearly half, carefully removing the scum as it rises. Strain it through a hair sieve; put it by in a cool place, and, when wanted, take off all the fat from the top, warm up as much as is required, and serve with sippets of toasted bread. This is a very nutritious broth, and easy of digestion.

Time.—To be simmered until the liquor is reduced to half.

Average cost, 6d.

Sufficient to make 1-1/2 pint of broth.

Seasonable from June to March.

Aug 192013
 

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Today is the birthday (1902) of Ogden Nash, poet and humorist.  Nash was born in Rye, New York, but because of the obligations of his father’s import-export company, the family relocated often. They lived briefly in Savannah, GA in a carriage house owned by Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA. After graduating from St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island, Nash entered Harvard University in 1920, but dropped out a year later. He returned to St. George’s to teach for a year, then left to work his way through a series of other jobs, eventually landing a position as an editor at Doubleday publishing house, where he first began to write verse. Nash moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1934 where he lived until his death in 1971. Nash came to think of Baltimore as home. After his return from a brief move to New York, he wrote “I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more.”

His first job in New York was as a writer of streetcar card ads for a company that previously had employed another Baltimore resident, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nash loved to rhyme. “I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old,” he once said in an interview. He had a fondness for crafting his own words whenever rhyming words did not exist, or just for the fun of it. Nash is known not only for his inventive rhymes, but also for his creatively uneven meters.

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In 1931 he married Frances Leonard. He published his first collection of poems, Hard Lines, that same year, earning him national recognition.  In the interests of full disclosure I’ll admit I am not a big fan of Nash. Much of his work reminds me of that annoying uncle at Christmas parties who is always telling lame jokes that rely on bad puns.  But I will say that he hits the mark for me once in a while, and I applaud his social commentary.  Here’s some examples of the latter:

“The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly.”

“Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long”

“People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”

“I do not like to get the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.”

“People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven’t what they want that they really don’t want it.”

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I will say, too, that I approve of his conversion of sappy sentiments into something more insightful (by my lights).  The classic example is his conversion of Joyce Kilmer (“only God can make a tree”) from,

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

into . . .

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

Nash wrote about food both in short couplets and longer pieces:

Parsley
Is gharsley.

One cantaloupe is ripe and lush,
Another’s green, another’s mush.
I’d buy a lot more cantaloupe
If I possessed a fluoroscope

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed

Let us call Yorkshire pudding
A fortunate blunder;
It’s a sort of popover
That tripped and popped under.

Toward a better world I contribute my modest smidgin;
I eat the squab, lest it become a pigeon.

I don’t mind eels
Except as meals.

“The Clean Platter” is his longest food poem with stanzas of alternating meters.  Here is an excerpt:

Go purloin a sirloin, my pet,
If you’d win a devotion incredible;
And asparagus tips vinaigrette,
Or anything else that is edible.
Bring salad or sausage or scrapple,
A berry or even a beet.
Bring an oyster, an egg, or an apple,
As long as it’s something to eat.

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Nash had Crohn’s disease in later life and died from a flare up caused by improperly prepared coleslaw. So I’ll not use a recipe for that as a tribute, even though he might appreciate the irony.  Instead I’ll pluck scrapple from the stanza above.  Scrapple is a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and wheat flour, sometimes buckwheat flour, and spices. The mush is formed into a semi-solid congealed loaf, and slices are then pan fried until crisp and browned on the sides before serving. Traditionally, scraps of meat left over from butchering, not used or sold elsewhere, were made into scrapple to avoid waste. Scrapple is best known as a rural food of the Mid-Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia). It is probably of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. It’s good as a breakfast meat, served on its own with maple syrup, or with eggs and hash browns.

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Scrapple

Ingredients:

1 ½ lbs (750 g) pork butt, cut into large chunks
2 whole fresh pork hocks
½ white onion, peeled
1 stalk celery, chopped in half
½ tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3 tsps ground black pepper
2 tsps kosher salt
1 tsp dried sage
1 cup white cornmeal
1 cup yellow cornmeal
clarified butter, for pan frying
maple syrup, for serving (optional)

Instructions:

Put the pork butt, hocks, onion, celery, peppercorns and bay leaf in a stock pot. Cover with water and simmer over low heat, covered, until the pork is tender and the meat falls off the bones, about 2 hours.

Drain and reserve the stock. Put the solid contents onto a sheet pan so that you can easily discard the celery, onions, peppercorns, bay leaf and bones from the hocks

Add the meat to a food processor and pulse to chop. Don’t over grind it.

Measure 5 cups (1 lt) of stock and return it to the pot with the meat, cayenne, black pepper, salt, and sage. Bring to a simmer over low heat.

Add the cornmeal and stir constantly until well blended. Simmer until smooth and thick, about 15 minutes or so. Add a little stock or water, if needed, to ensure a smooth texture.

Pour into a loaf pan and refrigerate until solid, preferably overnight.

Unmold, slice, and fry in clarified butter until golden brown.

Yield: about 8 thick slices.